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Ford 400 Preview: It Comes Down to This

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale is finally here. We have reached the thrilling and ultimate race of the season this weekend. 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 race track crowns the champion of the Sprint Cup Series.

Denny Hamlin comes to Homestead with a narrow 15-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the championship Chase. Add to that the fact that Kevin Harvick is lurking around at 31 points behind Johnson, then we have the makings of a battle royale for this final race of the season. This is the closest contested championship in the seven-year history of the Chase for the Cup format. Hamlin can guarantee a clinch of his first Sprint Cup Series championship by either finishing second while leading the most laps or winning Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Still, this is racing and anything can happen as we saw at Phoenix International Raceway this past weekend when Hamlin had to pit for fuel while leading in the closing laps and lost the race as a result. Johnson could easily pull the come-from-behind performance of a lifetime and capture his record-setting fifth straight championship or Hamlin could cruise to the victory at Homestead and win his first ever Sprint Cup title. That is the reason to tune in on Sunday. History could be made in either scenario.

Since we come to Homestead-Miami Speedway only once a year, we will need to rely on historical information to a great degree for this Sunday's race. The usual suspects race very well at the South Florida oval, and most of them are Chase drivers. While current hot streaks will play a 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 five races at Homestead.

Carl Edwards5.02101122511,112111.0
Matt Kenseth9.615567287965105.3
Martin Truex Jr.6.82676230860103.8
Kevin Harvick7.419744581,029101.1
Greg Biffle9.4152955688999.0
Jeff Gordon9.4233535592495.1
Denny Hamlin10.6192619182294.7
Jimmie Johnson15.2190313795692.9
Mark Martin10.312827277491.9
Jeff Burton17.8150501972388.7
Clint Bowyer16.31598177488.5
Tony Stewart18.2186605490788.2
Kasey Kahne13.4141659070488.1
Casey Mears16.0214477671684.6
Kyle Busch25.2149313062684.2
Ryan Newman18.4157214065579.7
David Ragan22.78911144879.5
David Reutimann20.0859143178.8
Kurt Busch23.0106736050178.3
A.J. Allmendinger10.5412018676.9

This weekend sets up pretty well if Hamlin hopes to capture the championship trophy away from Johnson. As you can see from the table above, Johnson and the No. 48 team have not really dominated Homestead over the years. Johnson has always come to Homestead with a “target finish” to clinch the title, so pushing for victory lane here has not been the norm for our defending champion. This factor should play into your fantasy racing lineups this weekend. All things considered, Johnson is a mediocre fantasy play at this weekend's event, despite what's at stake for the Hendrick Motorsports star. Hamlin is the winner of last season's race at Homestead. That bodes well for his championship hopes, and the No. 11 Toyota team should enter this event very confident being the defending event champions. Roush drivers have won five of the last six races at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle have been statistically strong at the intermediate oval in recent history. If there is a surprise winner in victory lane this Sunday, it will likely be one of these three drivers. 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 2010 season finale.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Greg Biffle –
Biffle has been to victory lane a couple times already this season, and he's certainly flirted with wins on a couple more occasions. He's had a great season for Roush Fenway Racing and has finished the schedule strong. HMS presents a good opportunity for Biffle to end the season on a very positive note. Biffle has won three career races at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and should have somewhat of a technical advantage on most of the field. His recent Top 5 at Texas shows that the No. 16 team has their intermediate oval groove in high gear.

Kevin Harvick –
The Richard Childress Racing veteran comes to Homestead still in the hunt for this season's championship. He has a great career record at HMS. In nine career starts at Homestead, Harvick has never finished outside the Top 20 and he sports seven Top-10 finishes. With a potential championship in the picture and riding a two-race Top 5 streak at the oval into this event, expecting a strong performance for Harvick at Homestead is not a stretch at all.

Denny Hamlin –
The driver of the Fed Ex No. 11 Toyota comes into this season's finale in the driver's seat in the championship quest. Hamlin leads Johnson by a mere 15 points in the Chase for the Cup and he's looking to seal the deal on his first championship at Homestead this Sunday afternoon. The Joe Gibbs Racing star won this event one year ago and served notice in that race that he would be a championship contender in 2010. Twelve months later that is indeed proving to be the case.

Matt Kenseth –
Kenseth has one more shot at victory lane before the season comes to a close this Sunday afternoon at HMS. This should be a good opportunity for the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team. Kenseth has led 287 laps in his last three starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway. One of those outings resulted in a win for the veteran driver. With his recent runner-up finish at Texas Motor Speedway, we have high expectations for Kenseth in the Ford 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Jeff Gordon –
Gordon comes to Miami eliminated in the championship picture. He trails Denny Hamlin by 335 points and faces no chance of winning the title, no matter how the No. 24 team performs. That shouldn't change the focus of this competitive driver. Make no mistake about it Gordon will be going for victory lane this weekend. He owns a series-best nine Top 10's in 11 career starts at the South Florida oval, and that elusive first win is still eluding the Hendrick Motorsports star at this facility.

Mark Martin –
The No. 5 team comes to Homestead looking to extend their current momentum for what will hopefully be a 2011 championship run. Martin owns the stats that should make him a fabulous fantasy racing play for the Ford 400. Martin has five career Top-10 finishes at the South Florida oval, and he's collected two of those in the last four events there. Considering his Top 5 run at Fort Worth recently, we have a high degree of confidence in Martin this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson –
The four-time Sprint Cup Champion won't be making his usual “target finish” start this weekend at Homestead. Johnson is 15 points behind Denny Hamlin coming into the finale, so Johnson needs to race with a purpose on Sunday afternoon in order to clinch the title. Having won only one of the nine Chase races, but having cracked the Top 10 in most of them, Johnson is riding a consistency streak entering this weekend. He cracks the Top 10 at a 67 percent rate at Homestead Miami Speedway, so that's reassuring for fantasy racing players.

Joey Logano –
Logano has been looking more like a veteran driver than a youngster of late. He has cracked the Top 10 in five straight races, and seven of his last 10. While this will be just his second career start at the South Florida oval, there's no need to be reserved about his chances. It's become clear that Logano, crew chief Greg Zipadelli and the No. 20 team have begun to develop the chemistry that will make him a future champion some day.

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

Martin Truex Jr. –
The No. 56 team is hoping to end the season on a good note this weekend. Truex hasn't had quite the year he expected with Michael Waltrip Racing, but a good finish at HMS would go a long way towards boosting morale for next season. His career numbers at the 1.5-mile track are pretty stellar. Truex has four Top-10 finishes in five career starts at this facility. It's that kind of familiarity that should net a Top-15 finish on Sunday afternoon.

Paul Menard –
Menard will close out his experience with Richard Petty Motorsports this weekend. Despite all the financial problems and other distractions around this camp this season, Menard has managed to race well. He has posted a career-best six Top-10 finishes this season. He will head to Richard Childress Racing next season and hope to take the next steps in his Sprint Cup Series development. We see Homestead as an opportunity to grab one more Top 10 for the season is over.

Clint Bowyer –
Despite not being in the championship hunt, Bowyer's two victories in the Chase this season have opened some eyes in the Sprint Cup Series garage area. Entering this race, Bowyer is sporting a career-best 18 Top-10 finishes in 2010 to go along with those two wins. Bowyer is currently running very consistent in the series as we round out the 2010 campaign. Two of his four career finishes at Homestead-Miami Speedway have resulted in Top-10 finishes, and Bowyer's recent seventh-place finish at Fort Worth is a reasonable expectation of his performance this Sunday afternoon.

David Ragan –
Ragan is a driver to watch closely this weekend. His Roush Fenway Racing affiliation should pay big dividends at this track. Ragan has suffered through a difficult season in 2010, but he has run well at Homestead during his brief Sprint Cup career. With Top-10 finishes in the Chase at both Charlotte and Texas, he has the intermediate ovals dialed-in right now. The No. 6 Ford team should challenge the Top 10 in Sunday's Ford 400.

A.J. Allmendinger –
Allmendinger has been a Top 15 performer all season long for the Richard Petty Motorsports team. He has a career-best seven Top-10 finishes this season and appears headed for a Top-20 finish in the final standings. Allmendinger comes to Miami this weekend to make a statement about his future in NASCAR and to end the season with a good performance. Despite all the problems that RPM is experiencing right now, a Top-15 finish is a weekly expectation for this driver and team.

Sam Hornish Jr. –
While his Homestead numbers aren't very impressive, this is more the leap of faith play in your weekly lineup leagues this weekend. Hornish has only two career starts at the South Florida oval, but in this event one year ago the Penske Racing driver finished a respectable 21st. His last intermediate oval start yielded a decent 18th-place finish at Fort Worth a couple weeks ago. Hornish should finish in this range again this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kyle Busch –
Every driver has his bad track, and Homestead-Miami Speedway is that weakness for Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing ace has always qualified well at the intermediate oval, but the finishes have yet to come for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota. Busch has three finishes of 20th or worse in five career starts at Homestead. Those numbers make him far too risky to pin your fantasy racing hopes on this weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Earnhardt will put the wraps on what can only be termed as another disappointing effort in his third season with Rick Hendrick Motorsports. He appears poised to finish around 19th in the final standings and has only eight Top 10's this season to his credit. That's far short of what was expected for this driver and team. HMS is one of his worst statistical tracks on the circuit, so we don't expect a strong finish on Sunday.

Jeff Burton –
The No. 31 team is limping to the finish line this season. Burton made the Chase in 2010, but he's fallen on hard times in the last few races of this post-season. Crashes at both Talladega and Texas have dropped Burton to the bottom of the Top 12, and his frustration was evident in the shoving match with Jeff Gordon at Texas. He enters this weekend with five career Top 10's at Homestead-Miami Speedway. However, Burton's current bad luck and frustration could derail any good finish in the Ford 400.

Kurt Busch –
Busch is another star that has fallen apart in the Chase for the Cup. He looked like a championship contender entering the Chase, but has only posted one Top 10 in his last seven starts. Busch has fallen all the way to 10th-place in the standings as a result. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge has one win and four career Top 10's at HMS, but two of his last starts at the facility have resulted in DNF's. Busch is a driver to avoid at Homestead Miami Speedway.