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Ford 400 Preview: Florida Finale

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 finale of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup 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 straightaways 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 NASCAR's top racing series.

Carl Edwards comes to Homestead with a narrow 3-point lead over Tony Stewart in the championship Chase. This the closest margin between drivers in the history of the Chase, and a setup for a wild season finale. For the first time in six years we come to Homestead-Miami Speedway with Jimmie Johnson not the man to beat for the title. His reign of five consecutive championships will finally come to an end. While Johnson won't factor in the quest for the Cup, he will race for the checkers and hope to end the 2011 season on a race-winning high. Edwards can guarantee a clinch of his first Sprint Cup Series championship only by winning Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The margin is so tight that no other finish can clinch the title regardless of where Stewart finishes. In the event of a tie, Stewart owns that tie-break (best finishes) and he would take home his third Sprint Cup championship in the event both drivers end up tied after 400 miles of racing at Homestead. Stewart could easily pull the come-from-behind performance of a lifetime on Sunday and capture his record-setting fifth victory of the Chase or Edwards 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 only come to Homestead-Miami Speedway 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 six races at Homestead.

Carl Edwards4.32361734411,379117.5
Martin Truex Jr.7.6327120921,068107.4
Matt Kenseth9.5216742881,228105.7
Kevin Harvick6.724362581,264102.8
Greg Biffle9.5238100561,11897.4
Jimmie Johnson13.024846381,22197.4
Denny Hamlin11.2232639191592.5
Kasey Kahne12.21997710087489.6
Mark Martin11.419328297389.6
Jeff Gordon14.0258545597788.7
Tony Stewart16.523560551,03787.6
Clint Bowyer15.42458189387.0
Jeff Burton20.0182522082487.0
A.J. Allmendinger8.7942036285.2
Kyle Busch26.3200363083584.5
Ryan Newman16.5217244086882.2
David Ragan22.018011166080.0
Jamie McMurray18.21936188679.3
Casey Mears18.8214477671878.3
Kurt Busch22.0140766053974.8

This weekend sets up pretty well for Edwards and the No. 99 team in their quest to become Sprint Cup Series champions for the first time. As you can see from the table above, Edwards and his Roush Fenway Racing team have the best driver rating and absolutely eye-popping stats at this South Florida oval. In the last six seasons no other driver has led more circuits around this oval than the driver of the No. 99 Ford. Edwards is the winner of two of the last three races at Homestead. To say that this set of stats should play into your fantasy racing lineups this weekend is a huge understatement. Stewart is a two-time winner at the 1.5-mile oval although both victories came quite some time ago in 1999 and 2000. That was way before the track was reconfigured with variable banking, so it's difficult to put too much emphasis on those wins. Still, the driver of the No. 14 Chevy comes to South Florida on one of the biggest hot streaks ever seen in the history of the Chase. That bodes extremely well for Stewart and his championship hopes. Victories during the Chase at ovals like Chicago and Fort Worth should do more to boost confidence in the No. 14 camp than anything Stewart accomplished at Homestead over 10 years ago. Roush drivers have won six of the last seven races at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If someone hopes to upstage the two championship contenders, it will likely be Roush teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. The duo has 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 two 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 2011 season finale at Homestead.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Carl Edwards -
The driver of the No. 99 Ford comes into this season's finale in the driver's seat in the championship quest. Edwards leads Stewart by a mere 3 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 Roush Fenway Racing star won this event one year ago and he also won at the South Florida oval in 2008. With all that's hanging in the balance we expect Edwards to have his Homestead "A-game" in full effect this weekend.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart comes to Homestead still in the hunt for this season's championship. After leading the most laps and cracking the Top 5 this past week at Phoenix, he comes to Homestead-Miami Speedway 3 points arrears of Edwards in the Chase. In 12 career starts at Homestead, Stewart boasts two victories and six Top-10 finishes. He's led close to 400 laps at this intermediate oval over the years. With a potential championship in the picture and having four wins during the Chase for the Cup it's not a stretch to see the No. 14 team snap Stewart's long winless drought at this facility.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle has been held out of victory lane this season, but we have to toss that factoid out the window this weekend at Homestead. HMS presents a great 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. The recent revival of the No. 16 team has been quite noticeable, especially on the larger ovals. Biffle won poles during the Chase at both Kansas and Fort Worth and he brought home eighth- and fifth-place finishes in those events. The veteran driver could be the season-ending surprise in victory lane in Sunday's Ford 400.

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 close to 300 laps in the last four seasons at Homestead-Miami Speedway. One of those outings resulted in a win for the veteran driver. With his recent win at Charlotte and Top-5 finishes at both Kansas and Fort Worth, we believe the No. 17 Ford will be fast right off the hauler this weekend.

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

Kevin Harvick -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran comes to Homestead eliminated from the running for this season's championship. Harvick has had a great season with four victories and 18 Top-10 finishes. In 10 career starts at Homestead, Harvick has never finished outside the Top 20 and he sports eight Top-10 finishes. The No. 29 team is riding a three-race Top-3 streak at this facility into this week's event. Given the performances in recent seasons at this South Florida oval, we expect a strong outing in the Ford 400.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon comes to Miami eliminated in the championship picture. He trails leader Carl Edwards by 112 points and is mathematically eliminated from championship contention. 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 12 career starts at the South Florida oval. Gordon's last start on a 1.5-mile track resulted in a sixth-place finish at Texas a couple weeks ago.

Kasey Kahne -
The No. 4 team comes to Homestead looking to extend their current momentum after a huge victory at Phoenix International Raceway this past week. Kahne has earned more points and Top 10's in the Chase for the Cup than any other drivers short of Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. It's that red-hot performance that we'll gamble on again this at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The Red Bull Racing star has two career poles and three Top 10's at the South Florida oval. In this event one year ago, Kahne started from the pole, led 10 laps and finished a respectable sixth. Somehow we feel he'll outdo that performance on Sunday afternoon.

Jimmie Johnson -
The five-time Sprint Cup Champion won't be making his usual "target finish" this weekend at Homestead. Johnson is 68 points behind leader Edwards coming into the finale, so Johnson will go for broke this weekend in an attempt to get into victory lane. Having won only one of the nine Chase races, but having cracked the Top 10 in four of them, Johnson is looking to reestablish the No. 48 team's consistency this weekend. He cracks the Top 10 at a 70 percent rate at Homestead Miami Speedway, so that's reassuring for fantasy racing players.

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

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 56 team is hoping to continue their hot streak and end their season strong at Homestead this weekend. Truex hasn't had quite the year he expected with Michael Waltrip Racing, but a turnaround has been underway in recent weeks. Three of his 11 Top 10's on the season have come in just the last four races. Truex's career numbers at this 1.5-mile oval are pretty stellar. The MWR driver has four Top-10 finishes in six career starts at this facility. It's that kind of familiarity that should net a Top-15 finish on Sunday afternoon.

Marcos Ambrose -
Another hot driver heading into the season finale is Ambrose. The RPM driver has picked up four Top-10 finishes during the Chase and climbed to as high as 17th in the driver standings entering this weekend. Ambrose's last outing on an intermediate oval netted a respectable 11th-place finish at Fort Worth a couple weeks ago. In his three career starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway the driver of the No. 9 Ford has not finished better than 26th. Don't let that concern you for this weekend's Ford 400. Ambrose should challenge the Top 10 and post a career-best finish at this oval.

Clint Bowyer -
Despite leaving his RCR No. 33 team at the end of this season, Bowyer is finishing the year strong as a lame-duck driver. Entering this race Bowyer is ranked 13th in the driver standings with 15 Top-10 finishes on the year. He's had one victory and six Top 10's during the Chase and that makes him one of the most successful driver's of this postseason. Bowyer last three trips to south Florida have netted fifth-, 11th- and 12th-place finishes. We believe he'll end up in the Top 10 after 400 miles of action at Homestead's oval.

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 had a pretty good season despite being out of the No. 6 Ford at the end of the year. He has run well at Homestead during his brief Sprint Cup career. With 11th- and 12th-place 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 10 Top-10 finishes this season and appears headed for a possible Top-15 finish in the final driver standings. Allmendinger comes to Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend to make a statement about his future in NASCAR and to end the season with a good performance. If he raced for a better-equipped stable, there's little doubt in our minds that Allmendinger would be winning races and also be a Chase participant. A Top-15 finish is a weekly expectation for this driver and team.

Trevor Bayne -
The Daytona 500 winner will make his 17th and final Sprint Cup Series start of this season on Sunday at Homestead. Despite failing to crack the Top 10 since his Daytona 500 victory, it has been a good campaign in 2011 for Bayne. His learning curve has increased significantly in the second half of this season. Bayne's last two starts have netted 15th- and 17th-place finishes at Talladega and Fort Worth. Racing on an intermediate oval this week at Homestead has us expecting similar results for this driver and team.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Joey Logano -
With a lowly six Top 10's on the season, this year can't end soon enough for the No. 20 Toyota team and Logano. The Chase has been no easier for the young driver. Logano has no Top 10's during the postseason and an unimpressive 21.1 average finish over the nine races. He limps into Homestead this weekend hoping to end the year on a positive note, but we have to be reserved due to his inconsistency. Two career starts at the south Florida oval have resulted in one DNF and a 24th-place finish.

Kyle Busch -
Every driver has his bad track, and Homestead-Miami Speedway is that weakness for Busch. Considering the wheels came off his Chase campaign a few races ago, it's difficult to see this driver finishing the season strong. 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 four finishes of 20th or worse in six 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 a season that didn't quite live up to expectations. He appears poised to finish around seventh in the final driver standings but his winless drought stands at 128 races entering this weekend. While the Chase berth in 2011 is an encouraging sign, the lack of wins and subpar Chase performance are both disappointing. HMS is one of his worst statistical tracks on the circuit with no Top 10's in 11 starts and an average finish of 24.2, so we don't expect a good outing on Sunday.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
The No. 42 team is limping to the finish line this season. Montoya's subpar 2011 campaign has gotten worse during the Chase for the Cup. The veteran EGR driver has only one Top 10 during the postseason and he stands a lowly 19th in the overall driver standings entering the Ford 400. Montoya has five career starts at the south Florida oval with only one Top-15 finish and two DNF's to his credit. Considering the inconsistency of this driver and team and poor record at Homestead, we recommend waiting until next season to deploy Montoya.