Tampa Bay Sports Day

NASCAR NOTES: A Spoiler At Homestead?

Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will mark the conclusion of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. Below are how the last nine season finales at Homestead-Miami Speedway turned out.

Since the introduction of the “win and you’re in” elimination-style Playoff format, the eventual champion has won at Homestead-Miami Speedway each of the five years (Kevin Harvick, 2014; Kyle Busch, 2015; Jimmie Johnson, 2016, Martin Truex Jr., 2017 and Joey Logano, 2018).

Still, a driver out of championship contention can win the race.

There is plenty of motivation. Jimmie Johnson won the race in 2016 en route to his record-tying seventh Cup title. He is looking to snap a career long 94-race winless streak.

This season marks the first time Johnson didn’t qualify for the Playoffs and he’d love nothing more than to end it in Victory Lane.

Logano is the defending race winner and reigning champion and having just missed a shot at defending his title – fifth best after the previous Playoff round, motivation is not an issue.

In addition to Logano and Johnson, both previous Homestead winners, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson claims Homestead-Miami Speedway as his favorite track.

The 27-year-old NASCAR Next alumnus finished runner-up at Homestead in 2016 after leading a race-high 132 laps and placed fifth at the 1.5-mile track in 2015. After a breakout season in 2017, when he set career highs in wins (four), top fives (14), top 10s (19) and average finish (13.6), Larson team struggled in 2019. But he won his first race (at Dover, Del.) in two years during the Playoff push and arrives in South Florida fresh off a fourth place run at Phoenix. He’s led 322 laps at Homestead in the last three Playoff races seeking his first Cup win at the track.

And Larson does have a win in the sun at Miami – in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He took the checkered flag in 2015 after finishing third in 2013 and second in 2014 in the Xfinity Series races.

Atop the Leader Board

All five Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champions crowned since the elimination-style Playoff format was introduced in 2014 earned their title by taking the checkered flag. In four of those years (2014, 2015, 2017, 2018), second place in the standings finished second in the race.

That means there’s a lot of pressure on this year’s Championship 4 to win, or at least finish very close to the front, to secure the title.

Denny Hamlin leads the Championship 4 in top-five finishes in 2019 with 19, followed by Kyle Busch’s 16. Busch has the most top 10s on the year with 26 and Martin Truex Jr. has the most victories (seven).

Hamlin, making his first Playoff appearance since 2015, leads the champion foursome as the only multi-time Homestead winner, taking the checkered flag in 2009 and 2013. Harvick, however, leads the four title contenders – in fact the entire field – in average finish (5.643). Truex is next with a 9.154, followed by Hamlin (10.571) and Busch (17.429).

Best of the Rest

In 2018, Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola raced his way to fifth place in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings – a career-best showing for the Tampa native and an example of the motivation that remains even for those drivers who did not advance to the Championship 4.

As the points stand now, Joey Logano sits in fifth place with a 23-point advantage over sixth place Kyle Larson and a 41-point edge over Logano’s Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney in seventh. Larson’s best career championship standings was eighth place in 2017. Blaney’s top finish in the standings was ninth place in 2017.

As for the top non-Playoff drivers from this season, Jimmie Johnson and Daniel Suarez have been battling for the 17th position since the Playoffs began. As of now, Suarez holds a 16-point advantage on Johnson heading into Homestead, where Johnson won the race in 2016 and has 11 top-10 finishes.

Johnson had been ranked 17th for four weeks until the Playoff race at Martinsville where the seven-time Cup champion suffered the first of two consecutive sub 30th-place finishes. He was 38th at Martinsville, Va. and 34th at Texas.

Suarez has not finished better than 30th in two Cup Series starts at Homestead. His best career Cup championship finish – in two seasons – was a 20th-place finish in his 2017 rookie season so he would appear in good shape to set a new high this week.

Rookies Race for the Checkered Flag

Richard Childress Racing driver Daniel Hemric and JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ryan Preece have kept the Sunoco Rookie of the Year crown battle intense and it remains competitive even heading into the season’s final race at Miami.

Hemric is ranked 25th in the championship standings only 10 points ahead of Preece in 26th place.

Their primary season statistics read similarly. Hemric won a pole position (at Kansas-2) and has one top-five and two top-10 finishes – his best outcome a seventh-place finish at Talladega-1. His best career finish at Homestead is a fourth place in the 2018 Xfinity Series championship race there last year. He was fifth there in 2016 NASCARA Gander Outdoors Truck Series finale.

Preece’s best rookie showing this season was a third place at Talladega-1. He also has a previous top five effort at Homestead, finishing fifth in the Xfinity Series finale there in 2017.