Ford EcoBoost 400 Preview: Crowning the Champion

Ford EcoBoost 400 Preview: Crowning the Champion

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The finale of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has arrived. After 35 events of spectacular crashes, dominating performances, and surprise comebacks, we have finally reached the championship-crowning moment of the sport. The drama has been building all season long, and even more so the last several weeks of the Chase. The Sprint Cup Series annual running at the 1.5-mile true oval with variable banking is the last of 36 races that crowns the NASCAR champion. Homestead's unique configuration, which includes relatively flat straight-aways of 3 degrees and 20 degree variable banked turns presents a challenge unlike any other facility on the circuit. It's fitting that this intermediate oval crowns the champion of NASCAR's top racing series.

Four drivers come to Homestead in a dead-heat for the championship. The format of the Chase has narrowed the field to just Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. It all comes down to one race for all the marbles and all four drivers start even at 5,000 points. The stakes and the pressure have never been higher. Harvick's hopes for a repeat championship are coming into focus. After a big performance and runner-up finish at Phoenix, the No. 4 team comes riding high into the season finale. Considering that Harvick sits closely atop the loop stat chart below for Homestead (of the four championship contending drivers), he has to feel very confident coming into this Ford EcoBoost 400. The driver with the best shot of upsetting Harvick is

The finale of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has arrived. After 35 events of spectacular crashes, dominating performances, and surprise comebacks, we have finally reached the championship-crowning moment of the sport. The drama has been building all season long, and even more so the last several weeks of the Chase. The Sprint Cup Series annual running at the 1.5-mile true oval with variable banking is the last of 36 races that crowns the NASCAR champion. Homestead's unique configuration, which includes relatively flat straight-aways of 3 degrees and 20 degree variable banked turns presents a challenge unlike any other facility on the circuit. It's fitting that this intermediate oval crowns the champion of NASCAR's top racing series.

Four drivers come to Homestead in a dead-heat for the championship. The format of the Chase has narrowed the field to just Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. It all comes down to one race for all the marbles and all four drivers start even at 5,000 points. The stakes and the pressure have never been higher. Harvick's hopes for a repeat championship are coming into focus. After a big performance and runner-up finish at Phoenix, the No. 4 team comes riding high into the season finale. Considering that Harvick sits closely atop the loop stat chart below for Homestead (of the four championship contending drivers), he has to feel very confident coming into this Ford EcoBoost 400. The driver with the best shot of upsetting Harvick is likely Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been lights out on the intermediate ovals this season since returning from his Daytona injuries. Once of Busch's four victories have come on 1.5-mile ovals, so that win at Kentucky earlier this season looms large in our memory. Gordon has pulled a late-season hot streak and magic act to advance this far into the Chase. Considering that he nearly won this event one year ago, we can't rule out the No. 24 Chevrolet team from throwing a Hail Mary pass this Sunday. While Truex is the least likely of the field to win the championship, he has been a steady performer on these cookie cutter ovals with seven Top 10s in the 10 events to-date. If any of the other Championship 4 run into problems at Homestead, it could be the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet that swoops in and steals the championship away. If anything the last two weeks have shown us at Texas and Phoenix, this has been a wild Chase for the Cup and anything can happen. The racing has been highly competitive and the fall out has made for some wild action on and off the track. So, if for no other reason that this, tune in on Sunday to see what the last chapter in this wild season holds.

Since we only come to Homestead-Miami Speedway once a year, we will need to rely on historical information to a great extent for this Sunday's race. The usual suspects race very well at the South Florida oval, and most of them are championship contenders. While current hot streaks will play a big part in this week's picks, we'll rely heavily on past data to outline the drivers for the last race of the season. Here are the loop stats for the last 10 races at Homestead.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Carl Edwards8.64072675602,103110.2
Matt Kenseth8.74031274492,242108.9
Martin Truex Jr.7.65631681081,981106.6
Kevin Harvick6.74351201322,072102.5
Jeff Gordon11.14671702371,998100.7
Jimmie Johnson16.446988652,03697.5
Denny Hamlin10.83901062131,67395.9
Clint Bowyer10.94732211,80493.2
Kyle Busch23.14221312371,69691.5
Kasey Kahne12.64451081071,72090.1
Ryan Newman13.348229431,77187.2
Greg Biffle16.2302103581,28485.1
Tony Stewart17.8301991201,27784.9
Brad Keselowski15.028139201,03383.7
Kyle Larson14.01075128882.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.8351149751,20979.2
Aric Almirola16.222823062877.7
Joey Logano20.018413069176.8
Jamie McMurray17.82761211,10075.9
A.J. Allmendinger19.516611056574.7

This weekend sets up pretty well for Harvick and the No. 4 team in their hopes to defend their Sprint Cup Series championship. As you can see from the table above, Harvick and his Stewart Haas Racing team enjoy the fourth-best driver rating and great loop stats at this South Florida oval. What this table doesn't show is how the veteran driver won this event one year ago with all the stakes and pressure a driver could possibly handle. The chances of Harvick stepping up again on the big season finale stage are very good. For as good as Harvick has been on these style tracks this season, Busch has been nearly his equal over a smaller sample size. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has one victory, three Top-5 finishes and 289 laps led on these style ovals in 2015. The numbers show clearly that these will be the two front-runners Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Hendrick Motorsports star Gordon has won one of the last three races at Homestead-Miami Speedway, so this track and event has become a bit of a specialty for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet. He nearly won this event one year ago were it not for some poor pit strategy late in the race he probably would have made it to victory lane.

If someone hopes to upstage the two lead championship contenders, it will likely be Gordon given his historical excellence at this facility. As for Truex's chances at the championship, they're pretty slim. The driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet has never won at the South Florida oval, but he's been very close on a couple occasions. However, unless the top three contenders all go in the tank, Truex won't likely be lifting that coveted trophy this Sunday afternoon. Regardless of the tale-of-the-tape, tune in to find out who comes out on top because stranger things have happened during this wild season. If another driver outside the championship picture hopes to steal the thunder on Sunday, it could likely be Joey Logano or Brad Keselowski. The two were eliminated from the Chase picture last weekend at Phoenix, but that makes them no less dangerous on a track such as Homestead. The two have combined for two victories and eight Top-5 finishes on intermediate ovals in 2015, so they could somewhat upstage the champion with a dominant performance in the Ford EcoBoost 400. We'll look at the championship contenders, and the non-Chase teams that could finish the season on a good note. We'll give you the drivers you need to dominate the 2015 season finale at Homestead.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran comes to Homestead in the driver's seat, no pun intended, for this season's championship. Although he is starting in a dead-heat at 5,000 points with three other drivers, he has to be seen as the man to beat in this final race to win the championship. Harvick rides into South Florida with lots of momentum coming off his strong performance and runner-up finish at Phoenix. In 14 career starts at Homestead, Harvick has never finished outside the Top 20 and he sports one victory, six Top-5 and 12 Top-10 finishes with 190 laps led. The No. 4 team has been pretty strong on intermediate ovals during the Chase. Harvick finished second at Charlotte and finished third at Fort Worth recently. Since this is one race for all the marbles, we expect him to successfully defend his championship this Sunday afternoon at Homestead.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver has had a career-defining season in 2015. Logano made his third Chase field and challenged for the championship right up until his elimination at Phoenix last weekend. His achievements include a career-best six victories, 21 Top-5 finishes and 27 Top-10 finishes. He's truly found a great home with the No. 22 Ford team. Logano doesn't have the best career numbers at Homestead but his intermediate oval performance during this season trumps those historical stats. Two of his six victories this season have come on tracks of this size and configuration. His championship quest may be over, but Logano is still eager to claim a win and upstage the Championship 4 in the process.

Kyle Busch -
The Chase lineup of tracks in general have not been kind over the years to Busch. He normally dips in performance this time of year, but 2015 has been completely different than the norm. The Joe Gibbs Racing ace has five Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in the nine races to-date. Busch's intermediate oval performance during the Chase has been pretty strong with 126 laps led and two Top-5 finishes in those four events. He has a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last three Homestead starts, and that's totally out of line with his historical stats at this facility. He'll be a factor this Sunday afternoon at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon comes to Miami looking to cap a hall of fame NASCAR career with a championship run in his final Sprint Cup Series start. With so much on the line in a race where he knows he'll be competing for the last time, we expect to see the No. 24 team elevate their game. Gordon owns a series-best seven Top 5s and 12 Top 10s at the South Florida oval. In this race one year ago, the Hendrick Motorsports star led 161 laps and was on the way to victory lane before some poor late-race pit strategy denied him the victory. You better believe that will be on his mind in this 400-mile race for all the marbles. If there's a spoiler in the Championship 4, it's Gordon in what could be his career-defining moment on the big stage.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Jimmie Johnson -
The six-time Sprint Cup champion won't be making his usual "target finish" this weekend at Homestead. Johnson is outside of the Chase coming into the finale, so there won't be any cruising to the title like we've seen in years past. So we expect Johnson will go for broke this weekend in an attempt to put an exclamation point on this season and serve notice to everyone for next year. Having won at Fort Worth just a couple weeks ago, this team is capable of showing up with a race-winning car at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson's victory at Texas Motor Speedway is a great example of this team's ability to rebound on intermediate ovals. His career 64-percent Top-10 rate at this oval speaks for itself.

Brad Keselowski -
The driver of the No. 2 Ford comes into this season's finale unable to challenge for the championship, but gathering momentum for 2016. Keselowski has shown throughout the Chase that he has his swagger back with victories at Chicago and Talladega and Top-5 finishes in the last three-straight events. The Penske Racing star has never achieved success or acclaim at the South Florida oval, but its way different this time around. Keselowski is focused on getting his team in top form before heading into the NASCAR off-season. He's the only driver in the series with perfect 10-for-10 in Top-10 finishes on intermediate ovals this season. The excellence of this driver and team on cookie cutter tracks this season is impossible to ignore.

Kurt Busch -
Busch saw his championship hopes fall short at Phoenix last week. However, his performance during the post season has been pretty consistent. All four of his starts on intermediate ovals during the Chase have netted Top-10 finishes. Busch has had these style ovals pegged most of the season. In his 14-career starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway the driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet has two poles, one victory and five Top 10s. Given his recent Top 10 at the similar Fort Worth oval a couple weeks ago he should have plenty of speed for this 400-mile event. Busch should crack the Top 10 Sunday afternoon at the Homestead oval.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing veteran has a one-race shot at winning the championship. That was probably an unthinkable goal before the season started, but he's got the proverbial punchers chance heading into the season finale. With five Top-10 finishes during the 9 Chase events, Truex has been nothing less than consistent with the pressure on. This weekend he comes to the perfect track to round out his 2015 season, and possibly play the role of spoiler. Truex has great career numbers at HMS with seven Top 10s in 10 starts. That works out to a miniscule 10.0 average finish. While it would take some bad luck for the other championship contenders for him to pull the upset, we expect him to be well positioned inside the Top 10 if the others stumble.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Miami who can provide a solid finish

Carl Edwards -
Edwards is looking to continue what has been a consistent, yet unspectacular performance in the Chase for the Cup. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been steady as a rock in the nine races of the Chase to-date. This weekend he comes to a very comfortable and favorite track of his in South Florida. Homestead Miami Speedway has been the site of two poles, two victories and seven Top-10 finishes in 11 starts for the driver of the No. 19 Toyota. Edwards absolutely loves this place as his loop stats attest. With 560 laps led and a career average finish of 9.1 at this facility, how can we not like Edwards in the Ford EcoBoost 400?

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin comes to Homestead looking to end this campaign on a positive note. After suffering through inconsistency during most of the early parts of the season, the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team has rallied in the second-half to push deep into this season's Chase before eventual elimination. In 10-career starts at Homestead, Hamlin boasts two wins and six Top-10 finishes with over 200 laps led. The JGR star has a victory and three Top-5 finishes on 1.5-mile ovals during the Chase for the Cup, so his record has been spotless. Considering that Hamlin has nearly become a specialist at this track and event in the last few seasons, with wins in two of the last six events at Homestead, he makes a strong fantasy pick for the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Jamie McMurray -
His career stats at this oval aren't particularly good. McMurray has only four Top 10s in his 13-career starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway. However, it's not his body of work at this oval that most interests us; it's McMurray's recent intermediate oval performance. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has one Top 10 and a respectable average finish of 14.5 in the four races of the Chase on these style ovals. The veteran driver finished an impressive fifth in this event one year ago. The No. 1 Chevrolet should be plenty strong when the team unloads it from the hauler this weekend. McMurray is a Top-10 threat in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is finishing the season strong. Almirola rolls into Homestead with four Top-10 finishes during the Chase and coming off a Top 10 at Phoenix last weekend. When not inside the Top 10 during this post season, Almirola has generally been a Top-20 finisher. The veteran driver has good career numbers at the South Florida oval, which he considers his hometown track. In his five career starts he has two Top-10 finishes and an average finish of 16.2. Homestead-Miami Speedway has been a strong venue for this veteran driver and all signs point to a Top-15 finish this weekend.

Ryan Blaney -
The young Wood Brothers Racing driver will be making his final start of his 16-race slate this season. With two Top-10 finishes to-date, it's been a nice campaign for the driver of the No. 21 Ford. One of those two Top 10s came at the intermediate oval of Kansas a few weeks ago. Blaney will be making his first-career start at Homestead-Miami Speedway in NASCAR's top division this Sunday, but don't let that fact deter you from deploying him in your fantasy lineups. Deep on the fantasy racing bench, Blaney carries way too much upside for a young driver for a small underdog team. A Top-20 finish is the floor for Blaney and he could yield so much more.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Matt Kenseth -
With Kenseth's great career numbers at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it will be tempting to deploy him this weekend in fantasy lineups. However, coming off the two-race suspension, where will the Joe Gibbs Racing driver's head be? That's the 64 dollar question. Given the controversy that has surrounded him after the Martinsville incident that led to his suspension, it would be risky to roll him in your lineups this weekend. His intermediate oval outings of the Chase have been less than desirable in the results category. A crash and 42nd-place finish at Charlotte was followed by his spin and crash at Kansas that led to his elimination from the Chase and spurred his ire towards the driver of the No. 22 Ford. It's best to keep Kenseth on the bench for this one.

Kasey Kahne -
Not much has gone right for Kahne in 2015. He missed the Chase field by a wide margin and suffered through inconsistency issues all season long. Frankly speaking, he'd probably be fine with just heading into the off season now rather than stumbling through another underwhelming start. The fact is this has been the veteran driver's worst campaign since 2010. Kahne will limp into Homestead and try to right the ship before the short off-season begins. Considering that he hasn't cracked the Top 10 in his last three Homestead starts, and he has only one Top 10 in his four intermediate oval starts of the Chase, prospects don't look very good.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer is in the same boat as Kasey Kahne coming to Homestead-Miami Speedway. He's rounding out what has been a very difficult season in 2015. The MWR driver is poised finish somewhere around 16th in the final driver standings, and that marks his second below average season in a row. Bowyer has good career numbers at Homestead with six Top 10s in nine-career starts. However, his performance this season on these 1.5-mile ovals has been pretty shocking. Bowyer has no Top 10s in the four intermediate ovals of the Chase and an average finish of 21.2 during that span.

Paul Menard -
Menard is a driver to avoid this weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway. The RCR veteran comes to Homestead looking to improve on some poor career numbers at this intermediate oval. In nine-career starts he has only one Top-10 finish at the South Florida oval. His average finish works out to a lowly 21.9. The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet's luck at this facility has just never come around. It's tough to bench a driver that has generally performed well through the Chase for the Cup, but that's exactly what we're recommending in Menard's case.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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