It started back in February under the sunny sky at Daytona and now 35 races later, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will return to the sunshine state to crown its champion this Sunday at Homestead-Miami.
It took every one of those 35 races to narrow the field to just four drivers that will make up the Championship 4 that will take the green flag at Homestead with the opportunity to be crowned this season’s champion.
Sunday’s race at Phoenix was the third race in the three-race Round of 8 and after wins at Martinsville by Martin Truex Jr. and Texas by Kevin Harvick only two spots were left to be filled to complete the Championship 4.
The remaining six drivers that made up the Round of 8 were still eligible for those two spots with each one’s path to the Championship 4 different. Winning as it was for Truex and Harvick was the surest way of keeping your title hopes alive as relying on your position in the final point standings for the final two spots would also depend on the success and failure of the other drivers.
Denny Hamlin became the third driver to advance as he followed the path set by Truex and Harvick and took the third checkered flag of the Round of 8.
It was a clutch performance by the Joe Gibbs Racing driver as he entered the race below the cutoff line after a poor finish at Texas.
It was only the second time in the history of the playoff format that a driver entered Phoenix below the cutoff line and advanced to the Championship 4 with a win. This will be his second ever Championship 4 appearance as his only other appearance was in the first year of this format in 2014.
The final spot in the Championship 4 came down to the highest finisher of the remaining five Round of 8 drivers and with his second place finish, Kyle Busch joined Hamlin and Truex as the third JGR driver that will compete for the title. His Phoenix race was made a little less stressful by the number of playoff points that he carried with him throughout the nine playoff races that he had earned for winning races and stages. Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott were the four drivers that were eliminated.
Busch, Truex and Harvick will be making their fifth appearance in the Championship 4 and all three will also be looking for their second series title. Hamlin has yet to win a title but will enter this weekend’s race with the momentum of a dominating performance as he led 143 laps on Sunday with 142 of those laps coming in the last 146 laps of the race. He also had to survive a late restart with three laps remaining as he held off both Busch and Blaney for his sixth win of the season.
Truex, Harvick, Hamlin and Busch now go to Homestead with their point totals all reset to 5000 with previous bonus points no longer being added to a driver’s point total. The highest finisher of the four will be crowned the champion as stage points and bonus points will not be awarded. Ever since this format for determining the champion has been used, the driver that won the title also won the race.
Homestead-Miami will be the center of the NASCAR world as its Ford Championship Weekend will consist of three days of racing that will crown all three of NASCAR’s major series champions. Friday night will kick off the weekend with the running of the EcoBoost 200 that will crown this season’s champion of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
Saturday the Xfinity Series will crown its champion in the season ending Ford EcoBoost 300. The racing season comes to an end on Sunday with the Ford EcoBoost 400 that will crown the MENCS champion.
Steve Mickey writes about NASCAR for HD Media.