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 2016 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-Miami Speedway'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 Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano. 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. Busch's hopes for a repeat championship are coming into focus. After a big performance and runner-up finish at Phoenix, the No. 18 team comes riding high into the season finale. Considering that Busch sits closely atop the loop stat chart below (driver rating 95.5) for Homestead, he has to feel very confident coming into this Ford EcoBoost 400. The driver with the best shot of upsetting Busch is likely Logano. The

The finale of the 2016 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-Miami Speedway'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 Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano. 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. Busch's hopes for a repeat championship are coming into focus. After a big performance and runner-up finish at Phoenix, the No. 18 team comes riding high into the season finale. Considering that Busch sits closely atop the loop stat chart below (driver rating 95.5) for Homestead, he has to feel very confident coming into this Ford EcoBoost 400. The driver with the best shot of upsetting Busch is likely Logano. The Penske Racing star has been lights out on the intermediate ovals during the Chase for the Cup. With runner-up finishes at Chicago and Forth Worth as well as a strong third-place finish at Kansas, the No. 22 Ford team has been gearing up for this finale at the 1.5-mile South Florida oval.

Edwards has pulled a late-season hot streak and magic act to advance this far into the Chase. The veteran driver of the No. 19 Toyota won at the similar oval in Texas two weeks ago to punch his ticket into this one race, winner-take-all finale. Considering that Edwards sits atop our loop stat chart for Homestead and he's a two-time winner at this oval, we can't rule out the No. 19 JGR team from throwing a Hail Mary pass this Sunday. While Johnson is the least likely of the field to win the championship, he has been a steady performer on these cookie cutter ovals with one win and two Top-5 finishes during the Chase. If any of the other Championship 4 run into problems at Homestead, it could be the driver of the No. 48 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 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 11 races at Homestead.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Carl Edwards8.84572725682,369109.4
Matt Kenseth8.54701344492,502108.4
Martin Truex Jr.8.06161701112,237105.0
Kevin Harvick6.34811301782,337104.3
Jimmie Johnson15.752098652,21496.8
Denny Hamlin10.74341182131,88296.3
Kyle Busch21.14471752781,96295.5
Kyle Larson11.016161352592.8
Brad Keselowski13.5320561061,27988.8
Kasey Kahne13.24511081071,73187.5
Clint Bowyer14.14732211,80587.2
Ryan Newman13.551729431,92986.8
Greg Biffle16.1316103581,35184.4
Joey Logano17.7216327295783.5
Tony Stewart18.9301991201,27781.2
Ryan Blaney17.0401017781.1
Jamie McMurray17.43251311,31276.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.22.5374150751,24976.8
Kurt Busch19.331086651,20876.1
Austin Dillon19.5612025275.9

This weekend sets up pretty well for Busch and the No. 18 team in their hopes to defend their Sprint Cup Series championship. As you can see from the table above, Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing team enjoy the seventh-best driver rating and good 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 Busch stepping up again on the big season finale stage are very good. For as good as Busch has been on these style tracks this season, Logano has been nearly his equal. The Penske Racing driver has three runner-up finishes, two third-place finishes and 262 laps led on these style ovals in 2016. The numbers show clearly that these will be the two front-runners Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Joe Gibbs Racing star Edwards won twice earlier in his career at Homestead-Miami Speedway (2008 and 2010), so this track and event have to really appeal to the back-flipping NASCAR star. Considering his win at the similar oval in Texas two weeks ago, Edwards has to be feeling pretty confident about his chances for an upset win. If someone hopes to upstage the two lead championship contenders, it will likely be Edwards given his historical excellence at this facility. As for Johnson's chances at the championship, they're somewhat slim. The driver of the No. 48 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, Johnson 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 Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. The two were eliminated from the Chase picture after Phoenix and Talladega respectively, but that makes them no less dangerous on a track such as Homestead. The two have combined for three victories and six Top-5 finishes on intermediate ovals in 2016, 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 2016 season finale at Homestead.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Busch -
The reigning champion will get his shot to defend his championship in a one-race winner-take-all scenario. Up until last season's Ford EcoBoost 400, Busch had never won at the South Florida oval. However, the pressure to perform birthed a champion in a single race. Busch's intermediate oval performance during the Chase has been pretty strong with 24 laps led, two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in those four events. He has a win and three Top-10 finishes in his last four Homestead starts, and that's totally out of line with his historical stats at this facility. Busch will be a hungry driver and willing to do anything in win consecutive Sprint Cup Series championships. He'll be the driver to beat in this 400-mile season finale.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver has had a great season in 2016, and he's come on stronger during the Chase running towards a possible championship. Logano's big win at Phoenix this past weekend has propelled him into the Championship 4 and a shot at his first championship. The driver of the No. 22 Ford doesn't have the best career numbers at Homestead but his intermediate oval performance during this season's Chase for the Cup is more worthy of our focus. Logano has a pair of runner-up finishes at Chicago and Fort Worth, and a third-place finish at Kansas all during the Chase. As it relates to Homestead, he led 72 laps and finished a career-best fourth-place in this event one year ago. Logano is poised to challenge for the win and the championship.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards is looking to continue what has been a consistent and surprising 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, and that's good news for his championship chances. Homestead Miami Speedway has been the site of two poles, two victories and seven Top-10 finishes in 12 starts for the driver of the No. 19 Toyota. Edwards absolutely loves this place as his loop stats attest. With 568 laps led and a career average finish of 9.2 at this facility, how can we not like Edwards in the Ford EcoBoost 400?

Kevin Harvick -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran comes to Homestead not in the championship picture after his elimination at Phoenix last week. Harvick is disappointed in not being a part of the Championship 4, but he should be motivated to upstage the title contenders. In 15-career starts at Homestead, Harvick has never finished outside the Top 20 and he sports one victory, seven Top-5 and 13 Top-10 finishes with 236 laps led. The No. 4 team has been pretty strong on intermediate ovals during the Chase. Harvick won at Kansas and finished sixth at Fort Worth recently. His last two starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway have yielded a win and runner-up finish. If there's a driver in the field that could upstage the championship contenders, it's Harvick.

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 will be looking to make history Sunday at Homestead, but he faces an uphill battle. The No. 48 team is limping into this winner-take-all race, and Johnson has never won at the South Florida oval, so prospects don't look so good. So, we expect the Hendrick Motorsports star will go for broke this weekend in an attempt to win the race and his seventh championship. Having won at the similar-sized oval in Charlotte just a few weeks ago, this team is capable of showing up with a race-winning car at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The win is not likely for Johnson, but his current three-race Homestead Top-10 streak and career 67-percent Top-10 rate at this oval endorse fantasy racing start for this driver and team.

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 2017. Keselowski has shown throughout the Chase that he has his swagger back with his runner-up finish at Martinsville and five Top 10s throughout the Chase. The Penske Racing star has not achieved much success or acclaim at the South Florida oval, but he's been improving in recent starts. Keselowski rides a three-race Homestead Top-10 streak into Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400. That includes a pair of impressive third-place finishes in his last two starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He'll be a Top-5 challenger in this 400-mile battle this Sunday afternoon.

Chase Elliott -
Elliott comes to South Florida this weekend looking to cap off a stellar rookie season. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has had some rough patches in the later third of the season, but he's recovering well down the stretch. He has done particularly well on the cookie cutter ovals of the Chase with 185 laps led and a pair of Top-5 finishes in the four events so far. That sets up very well for Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend. Elliott will be making his first-career start at the 1.5-mile oval, but that should be of little concern. The fact that the No. 24 team rolls out great cars for the young driver each time the series visits one of these style ovals should be your parting thought before setting your fantasy racing lineup.

Martin Truex Jr. - The Furniture Row Racing veteran won't be racing for the championship this weekend, but he's been one of the more impressive performers of the Chase for the Cup. With two wins and five Top-10 finishes during the nine 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 2016 season, and possibly play the role of spoiler. Truex has great career numbers at HMS with seven Top 10s in 11 starts. That works out to a miniscule 10.2 average finish. While the spotlight won't be on the No. 78 team this weekend, he could upstage the championship contenders. At a minimum there's a good certainty that Truex finishes the season with a Top-10.

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

Kurt Busch -
Busch saw his championship hopes fall short at Phoenix last week. However, his performance during the post season has been pretty consistent. His fifth-place finish at Phoenix this past week shows the resilience of the No. 41 team. Busch has had these style ovals pegged most of the season. In his 15-career starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway the driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet has two poles, one victory and six Top 10s. Given his recent Top 10 at the similar Charlotte oval a few weeks ago he should have plenty of speed for this 400-mile event. Busch should crack the Top 10 Sunday afternoon in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth comes to Homestead looking to end this campaign on a positive note. He's had a pretty strong Chase for the Cup up until last week's devastating events on the white-flag lap at Phoenix. Kenseth was poised to win and advance in the Chase before getting in a tangle and wrecking on the last lap. The veteran driver is one of only three drivers to score Top 10s in all four intermediate oval events of the Chase. In 16-career starts at Homestead, Kenseth boasts one victory and eight Top-10 finishes with over 400 laps led. He rides a three-race Homestead Top-10 streak into Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400, and that is a very good sign for Kenseth's potential to end the season on a high note.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne is one of only three drivers to score Top 10s in all four intermediate oval races of the Chase. That means the No. 5 Chevrolet team is dialed-in coming to South Florida this weekend. Kahne has seventh-, third-, 10th- and eighth-place finishes at Chicago, Charlotte, Kansas and Texas. That bodes extremely well for the veteran driver's chances in this 400-mile season finale. Kahne's Homestead resume is marginal at best with four Top 10s in 12 starts and an average finish of 15.2. We believe that mark will be the floor level this Sunday afternoon and his ceiling extends much higher. This driver and team have a lot of momentum right now, and we expect to see them mixing it up at the front at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Ryan Newman -
Despite Newman's uneven season, he's been a good performer on these cookie cutter ovals down the stretch. The Richard Childress Racing veteran has a pair of Top 10s in the four intermediate oval events of the Chase for the Cup. His last was a respectable 10th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway just a couple weeks ago. Newman is looking to finish the season strong and get prepared for a much better 2017 campaign in the No. 31 Chevrolet. Homestead will give him that opportunity to go into the short off season with some momentum. Newman has a pair of Top-3 finishes in his last four trips to South Florida, so recent outings here have been very strong.

Alex Bowman -
We're still a little star-struck after Bowman's incredible performance at Phoenix this past weekend. The young driver claimed the pole and led a stunning 194 laps in the CAN-AM 500 before changing fortunes would see him shuffled out of the lead late, but still finishing an impressive sixth at the Arizona short track. Bowman looks to carry that momentum into the season finale this weekend. This will be his third-career start at Homestead-Miami Speedway, so the 1.5-mile oval is not unfamiliar to the 23-year-old driver. Bowman last finished 26th here one year ago, but he'll be driving a much stronger car this time around. The sky has been the limit of late for the relief driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet, so don't be surprised by any feat he pulls this weekend.

Ryan Blaney -
The Wood Brothers Racing rookie has had a great season, and it's the hope of the No. 21 team that they end the campaign well this Sunday. The intermediate ovals of the Chase have held some success for Blaney. He has one Top-5 and three Top-15 finishes on ovals of this style and size the last nine weeks. This will be the young driver's second-career start at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He qualified sixth and finished 17th in this event one year ago. We believe Blaney learned a lot from that outing that he can employ this Sunday afternoon. After all, he should have a much faster car for this 400-mile event. We wouldn't even rule at the potential for a Top-10 finish in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Greg Biffle -
At one time, not so long ago, Biffle was practically the king of Homestead-Miami Speedway. He won three of his first five starts at the South Florida oval and was the dominant force each time the series visited here in the early 2000's. Things have changed considerably since then, and a lot has to do with the fall off of Roush Fenway Racing in recent years. Since Biffle's last victory at Homestead in 2006, he's only cracked the Top 10 here twice in the last nine starts. That has dropped his once miniscule average finish at Homestead from 12.6 to its current 17.0. Biffle's intermediate oval exploits of the Chase have been less-than-encouraging as well with finishes of 26th-, 35th-, 25th- and 18th-place. There are better fantasy racing options out there for the season finale.

Kyle Larson -
Larson had a great season right up until the Chase started. After some inconsistency in the opening round of the Chase, he was promptly bounced from championship contention after Dover. Since then, the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet has scrambled to pick up three Top 10s in the six events since his elimination. It's been a spotty record at best, and somewhat disappointing on the intermediate ovals. Only one of those four starts has netted a Top-10 finish. Larson is good in his three-career starts at the South Florida oval with an 11.0 average finish, but we feel the current state of this driver and team will fall well below that mark this Sunday afternoon.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer is looking forward to 2017 and taking over Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet at Stewart-Haas Racing. He's rounding out what has been a very difficult season in 2016. The HScott Motorsports driver is poised finish somewhere around 27th in the final driver standings, and that marks his worst campaign since becoming a Sprint Cup Series driver in 2006. Bowyer has good career numbers at Homestead with six Top 10s in 10-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 22.5 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 10-career starts he has only one Top-10 finish at the South Florida oval. His average finish works out to a lowly 21.8. The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet's luck at this facility has just never come around. Menard's intermediate oval outing of the Chase have been lacking as well, with only one Top-20 finish in the four events to-date. It's tough to bench a driver that is coming off a surprisingly good finish at Phoenix, 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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