Ford EcoBoost 400 Preview: Four Drivers, One Champion

Ford EcoBoost 400 Preview: Four Drivers, One Champion

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The finale of the 2018 NASCAR Monster Energy 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 Monster Energy 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 Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick 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 second championship are coming into focus. After a good performance and victory at Phoenix, the No. 18 team brings a lot of momentum into the season finale. Considering that Busch sits near the top of the loop stat chart below (driver rating 98.9) for Homestead, he has to feel very confident coming into this Ford EcoBoost 400. The driver with the best shot of

The finale of the 2018 NASCAR Monster Energy 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 Monster Energy 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 Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick 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 second championship are coming into focus. After a good performance and victory at Phoenix, the No. 18 team brings a lot of momentum into the season finale. Considering that Busch sits near the top of the loop stat chart below (driver rating 98.9) for Homestead, he has to feel very confident coming into this Ford EcoBoost 400. The driver with the best shot of foiling Busch is likely Harvick. The Stewart Haas Racing star has been strong on the intermediate ovals during the Chase for the Cup. With their recent victory at Texas, the No. 4 Ford team has been gearing up for this finale at the 1.5-mile South Florida oval. Logano has pulled a bit of a late-season hot streak and magic act to advance this far into the Chase. The veteran driver of the No. 22 Ford won at Martinsville a few weeks ago to punch his ticket into this one race, winner-take-all finale. Considering that Logano doesn't have the greatest loop stats for Homestead, he's likely the longest odds driver of the four remaining competitors for the championship. While Truex Jr. is stumbling coming into the championship finale, he has been a steady performer on these cookie cutter ovals with a victory this summer at Kentucky and Top 5s during the Chase at Las Vegas and Kansas. If any of the other championship contenders run into problems at Homestead, it could be the driver of the No. 78 Toyota 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 13 races at Homestead.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Larson7.62291812801,034109.3
Kevin Harvick5.85461782572,869106.8
Matt Kenseth8.45481384493,020106.8
Martin Truex Jr.9.86711931892,692104.1
Kyle Busch18.55222523222,48098.9
Chase Elliott8.014111052597.0
Denny Hamlin10.55351202132,38695.9
Jimmie Johnson15.5585115682,50595.2
Brad Keselowski15.0416711071,79790.4
Joey Logano14.930942781,48989.0
Ryan Newman14.258730432,26485.6
Clint Bowyer14.75332212,06484.2
Kasey Kahne16.54801091071,86582.1
Austin Dillon15.51679074881.8
Jamie McMurray16.14081311,74378.3
Kurt Busch19.0390100651,53177.5
A.J. Allmendinger17.723014073274.3
Aric Almirola22.523838064069.4
Erik Jones21.0000167.3
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.25.010414041765.5

This weekend sets up pretty well for Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team in their hopes to grab a second Monster Energy Cup Series championship. As you can see from the table above, Harvick and his team enjoy the second-best driver rating and great loop stats at this South Florida oval. What this table doesn't show is how the veteran driver has won on four intermediate ovals this season alone. The chances of Harvick stepping up big on the 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 during the campaign. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has three victories, six Top-5 finishes and 572 laps led on these style ovals during the 2018 season. The numbers show clearly that these will be the two front-runners Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Furniture Row Racing star Truex Jr. won this event one year ago to claim his first championship. Considering how recent that performance is, the driver of the No. 78 Toyota knows what it takes to win this winner-take-all race. If someone hopes to upstage the two lead championship contenders, it will likely be Truex given his recent success at this facility.

As for Logano's chances at the championship, they're somewhat slim. The driver of the No. 22 Ford has never won at the South Florida oval, and he only sports a 44-percent Top-10 rate at the facility. Unless the top three contenders all go in the tank, Logano 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 Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott. The two were eliminated from the Chase recently, but that makes them no less dangerous on a track such as Homestead. The two have combined for four-career Top-5 finishes at Homestead-Miami Speedway in just seven combined starts, so they could possibly 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 2018 season finale at Homestead.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick - The Stewart Haas Racing veteran comes to Homestead seeking his second championship. Harvick really turned things up a notch over the last month. He has put together a three-race Top-10 streak including a victory at Texas. In 17 career starts at Homestead, Harvick has never finished outside the Top 20 and he sports one victory, nine Top-5 and 15 Top-10 finishes with 315 laps led. The No. 4 team has been pretty strong on intermediate ovals this season. Harvick won at Texas and finished inside the Top 5 at both Chicago and Kentucky. He rides a four-race Homestead Top-4 streak into this weekend's action. If there's a driver in the field to beat this weekend, it's Harvick and his No.4 Ford team.

Kyle Busch -
Busch will get his shot to claim a second championship in a one-race winner-take-all scenario. Up until this event three years ago, Busch had never won at the South Florida oval. However, the pressure to perform birthed a champion in that single race on this big stage. Busch's intermediate oval performance during the Chase have been a bit more miss than hit, but we expect the No. 18 JGR team to show up with their A-game this Sunday. He has a win and five Top-10 finishes in his last six Homestead starts, and that's incredibly improved over starts earlier in his career at this oval. Busch will be a hungry driver and willing to do anything to win another Monster Energy Cup Series championship. He'll be a top contender in this 400-mile season finale.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing star is poised to defend his 2017 championship as he's been one of the more impressive intermediate oval performers this season. With one win and eight Top-5 finishes during those 10 events, Truex has been nothing less than impressive on these style ovals. This weekend he comes to the perfect track to round out his 2018 season, and potentially defend his championship. Truex has good career numbers at HMS with one victory and eight Top 10s in 13 starts. That works out to a strong 11.5 average finish. The driver of the No. 78 Toyota has his eyes on the prize and Truex will be focused like a laser beam this Sunday afternoon.

Chase Elliott -
Elliott comes to South Florida this weekend looking to cap off a strong third season. He will not be racing for the championship, but that shouldn't deter him from a great performance. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet had some rough patches mid-season, but he turned it up strong going into and throughout the Chase. He has done particularly well on the cookie cutter ovals of the Chase with 44 laps led, one victory and two Top-10 finishes in the three events so far. That sets up very well for Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend. Elliott will be making his third-career start at the 1.5-mile oval, but that should be of little concern. The young driver has finishes of 11th- and fifth-place in his two prior starts, and is poised to challenge for the win in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

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

Kyle Larson - Larson had a good season by most measures, but the inability to win has been a problem, and his inability to advance deep into the Chase the ultimate takeaway from 2018. He and the Chip Ganassi Racing team come to South Florida this weekend looking to build some momentum going into the off-season. One style of oval has been good for the No. 42 team this season, and that's the 1.5-mile tracks. Larson has racked up six Top-5 and nine Top-10 finishes on these circuits during the season, including strong second-, third- and fifth-place finishes at Las Vegas, Kansas and Texas during the Chase. Homestead has been a good oval for this driver and team. Larson has nearly won this event each of the last two seasons with 277 laps led and second- and third-place efforts.

Brad Keselowski -
The driver of the No. 2 Ford comes into this season's finale not a part of the championship picture, and that must torture the Penske Racing star. Keselowski has shown at times during the Chase that he has his old swagger back, but at times he's been mysteriously sub-par. His great finish at ISM Raceway this past week is a good example of the potential. Keselowski has been very consistent on the cookie cutter ovals this season with one victory and seven Top-10 finishes. He won Las Vegas to kick off the Chase, and followed with a sixth-place finish at Kansas. Homestead-Miami has been good for the No. 2 team in recent seasons. Four of his last five starts have netted Top-10 finishes for Keselowski. He should be pointed towards another Top 10 Sunday afternoon.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver is in the championship picture as we visit Homestead-Miami Speedway. However, the odds are stacked against him in racing the big three. The driver of the No. 22 Ford has been improving with time at the South Florida oval. Logano didn't crack the Top 10 in his first four starts at the facility, but he's rallied to rack up four Top 10s in his last five starts at Homestead. That has boosted his career average to 44-percent. Intermediate ovals have been good circuits for the No. 22 team in 2018. Logano has three Top-5 and nine Top-10 finishes in the 10 events to-date. Fourth-, eighth- and third-place finishes during the Chase are a good barometer for this weekend. Logano is poised to crack the Top 10 in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400.

Ryan Blaney -
The young Penske Racing driver has had a great season, and it's the hope of the No. 12 team that they end the campaign well this Sunday. The intermediate ovals of the Chase have held some success for Blaney. He has two Top-5 and three Top 10s on ovals of this style and size in the last nine weeks. This will be the young driver's fourth-career start at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The three prior starts haven't held much success for Blaney. However, those efforts came with his old race team at Wood Brothers Racing. Blaney's excellence on these style ovals this season should show in Sunday's 400-mile contest. We expect him to rack up his first-career Homestead Top 10.

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

Denny Hamlin - While Hamlin was eliminated from the Chase a few weeks ago, it by no means diminishes his recent level of performance. Of the drivers not in the final four vying for the championship, Hamlin has been one of the more impressive performers. He has three Top-5 finishes including two runner-up finishes in the last six races. The Joe Gibbs Racing star was flirting with victory lane at Phoenix last weekend before his dust up with Kurt Busch in the late laps. Homestead has been a very successful oval for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota. Hamlin has two-career victories and nine Top-10 finishes at the South Florida track. He rides five-race Homestead Top-10 streak into Sunday's action. If there's any driver in the field not a part of the championship stakes that can sneak up and impress, it's most likely Hamlin.

Erik Jones -
With his pair of fourth-place finishes at Kansas and Texas during the Chase, the intermediate ovals have been great tracks for the No. 20 Toyota team this season. Jones has tallied three Top-5 and seven Top-10 finishes on the cookie cutter ovals in 2018. This will be his second-career start at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In his debut last year, he finished a subpar 21st-place. However, that was with his old race team at Furniture Row Racing. This will be Jones' first start at Homestead with Joe Gibbs Racing. Given how well this young driver has performed of late, and how well his team has performed on 1.5-mile tracks, we expect to see Jones racing among the Top 5 and Top 10 in this 400-mile season finale.

Aric Almirola -
Almirola gave the run for the championship a great effort. After a deep run into the Chase, he was finally eliminated after the race at Phoenix last weekend. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran will have a homecoming of sorts this weekend visiting South Florida. Although the No. 10 Ford team won't be racing for the championship, they'll be racing for pride this Sunday afternoon. Almirola has two-career Top 10s in eight starts at the Homestead oval, but he's bringing his best team ever to the track this weekend. The veteran driver has been dialed-in on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. He owns six Top-10 finishes in 10 starts this season, including three of those coming during the Chase at Las Vegas, Kansas and Texas. We like Almirola's chances to finish the season strong Sunday afternoon.

Kurt Busch -
Busch saw his championship hopes evaporate at Phoenix this past weekend, but he's had a tremendous season regardless of that outcome. His seventh-place finish at Texas two weeks ago show that the No. 41 team has their act together on the intermediate ovals right now. Busch has had these style ovals pegged most of the season, with six Top 10s in 10 starts. In his 17-career starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway the driver of the No. 41 Ford has two poles, one victory and six Top 10s. Given his recent Top 10s at the similar oval in Texas he should have plenty of speed for this 400-mile event. Busch should crack the Top 10 Sunday afternoon in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Alex Bowman -
We can look back on the 2018 campaign and say it was somewhat successful for the new driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Bowman had his ups-and-downs, but he still forged 11 Top-10 finishes and began to build some chemistry with his new race team. Things should continue to grow going forward into 2019 for this young driver. Bowman claimed three of those 11 Top 10s on intermediate ovals, and mostly in the second-half of the season as the team continued to improve. The ninth-place finish at Kansas Speedway recently is just the latest example. This will be Bowman's fourth-career start at Homestead-Miami Speedway, so he's not short on experience here. However, this will be his best start to-date at the South Florida track. The ceiling should be pretty high for the No. 88 team this weekend.

Austin Dillon -
Dillon hasn't been super impressive in recent intermediate oval outings but he has been consistent and racing near the Top 10. In his last three starts on 1.5-mile tracks he's piled up finishes of 11th-, 11th- and 10th-place. The most recent being at Texas two weeks ago. Dillon has four-career starts at Homestead with similar results. His last three efforts have netted 14th-,12th- and 11th-place finishes the last three years. The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet may not be the trendiest fantasy racing pick this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but Dillon should deliver good and dependable results with little risk of a DNF or poor outing.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Daniel Suarez - The driver of the No. 19 Toyota Camry comes to Homestead this weekend making his last-ever start for Joe Gibbs Racing. Suarez will part ways with team after the season finale to make room for the incoming Martin Truex Jr. next season. While the young driver will want to impress any possible suitors watching Sunday's Homestead race, it will be tough odds for Suarez. Intermediate ovals have held little success for this driver and team this season. Suarez has just one Top-10 finish on these tracks in 2018 vs. five finishes outside the Top 20. That has pulled his season average finish down to 19.9. That's well below where he was racing on these same ovals in 2017. Suarez has just one-career start at this oval, and it was a 34th-place finish and DNF in this event one year ago.

Jimmie Johnson -
The seven-time Monster Energy Cup champion will not be racing for a record eighth championship this Sunday afternoon. The No. 48 team is limping into this season finale after subpar season and early Chase elimination. Johnson's last intermediate oval outing was a subpar 15th-place finish at Texas two weeks ago. As hard as it may be to believe, that's been about his ceiling this season on cookie cutter ovals. Johnson's Homestead record over the years has generally been a mixed bag, but he does sport a 65-percent Top-10 rate at HMS. His start in this event one year ago was a poor 27th-place finish, and that snapped a four-race Top-10 streak at the facility for the No. 48 team. The risks outweigh the possible gains of using Johnson in fantasy lineups this Sunday at HMS.

Darrell Wallace Jr. -
Despite Wallace's brilliant Top-10 finish this past weekend at ISM Raceway, we have to recommend benching the Richard Petty Motorsports youngster at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Outside of an eighth-place finish at Texas early in the season, the intermediate ovals have been tough on the No. 43 RPM team in 2018. Wallace has just one Top-10 and two Top-15 finishes in these 10 races of the season. The average finish is checking in at a lofty 23.9. Finishes on these ovals during the Chase have been even worse with 38th-, 26th- and 25th-place efforts. Sunday will mark Wallace's Monster Energy Cup Series debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He could be looking at a long day of learning this speedway.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer didn't exactly have the season he planned for at Stewart Haas Racing. There were some bright spots along the way to be sure, like victories at Martinsville and Michigan. However, his late-season collapse and failing to advance deep into the Chase isn't exactly what he and the No. 14 team set out to do. A big part of those struggles in 2018 have been his implosion on the intermediate ovals down the stretch. Bowyer's last four starts on these style tracks have only netted a pair of Top-15 finishes, and an 18.5 average finish across the span. Homestead has been an oval of success for this veteran driver with a 50-percent career Top-10 rate, but he's failed to crack the Top 10 there in his last three starts. Bowyer makes for a risky fantasy racing selection in the season finale.

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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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