By Jared Turner
With one race down and two races left to set the Championship 4 for Homestead-Miami Speedway, only Jimmie Johnson is guaranteed to fight for the Sprint Cup Series title in the 2016 season finale.
His three challengers in South Florida will be determined over the next two weekends, and it’s anyone’s guess who among the remaining seven championship-eligible drivers they will ultimately be.
While Johnson was celebrating his Championship 4-qualifying win in last Sunday’s Round of 8 opener at Martinsville Speedway, title-contending teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch were scratching their heads trying to figure out why their Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolets were so uncharacteristically slow all weekend.
Carl Edwards, meanwhile, was projecting optimism about his chances of rebounding from a dismal 36th-place finish that resulted from a tire failure on his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Ahead of Edwards and the Stewart-Haas cars but trailing Johnson at the checkered flag were four other Chase drivers – Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano – who all expressed varying degrees of frustration at not being able to punch their ticket to Homestead.
Edwards, though, has undoubtedly the biggest hurdle to overcome of the remaining seven Chasers not named Jimmie Johnson. Realistically, the veteran driver needs to win this weekend’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway or the following weekend’s elimination race at Phoenix to advance to the Championship 4.
The good news for Edwards? He believes he’s plenty capable of getting the job done at a pair of tracks where he’s been to Victory Lane multiple times.
“We want to try to win each one of these races this round, and really that’s probably the best performance we’ve had at Martinsville for a long time,” Edwards said. “Things like that happen in racing, though, and we have a heck of a crew. These guys are true warriors. We’re just going to go out and battle for every spot. We could have won both Texas and Phoenix earlier this year, so I feel very confident going to those two tracks. So we’ll be alright.”
Despite posting a far superior finish – fifth place – at Martinsville, reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch struck a less optimistic tone than his teammate.
“I can’t tell you where we’re going to finish at Texas and how good we’re going to run,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “We have to go there and map it all out through practice and have a good race car for the race and do it for the race. You can only take it one race at a time. So we go to the next one, we work on it and we make sure we get out of there with as good of a day as we can. We assess where we are and where we need to be and what we need to do with the next one.”
Older brother Kurt sounded even less certain about what the next two weekends will hold.
“I have no idea, but we will figure something out,” said Busch, who finished 22nd at Martinsville – two spots behind Harvick. “We came all this way. We won’t give up now.”
As for Johnson, the game plan for Texas and Phoenix is pretty simple.
“Obviously we want to win more races,” the six-time Sprint Cup champion and Hendrick Motorsports driver said. “If we can have success at Texas, that will only put us in Miami with more confidence and more speed in our car. That’s a mile-and-a-half. It will be nice to go into Phoenix not having to worry about much – really the next two! It puts us in a good position. The work is far from over. There’s one race (Homestead) that’s winner-take-all.”