By Jared Turner
It’s all come down to this.
With 35 races in the books, the curtain will close on the 2016 Sprint Cup Series season Sunday night as four drivers do battle for NASCAR’s biggest prize in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Eliminated from championship contention last weekend at Phoenix were Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth. Left standing are Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch.
While the four finalists all bring clear strengths into the winner-take-all finale, there is not a clear favorite among the group. All four have been dominant at various times over the course of the season, and none of the four are strangers to high-stakes, high-pressure situations.
So who holds the edge heading to South Florida? It’s anyone’s guess. Only this much is certain: The stage appears to be set for one whale of a shootout.
“It’s a pretty stout group,” said Edwards, the second driver to punch his ticket to the Championship 4. “I think whoever wins it, they should take a lot of pride in that. Really excited to go down there and race. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a while. Dave (Rogers, crew chief) is pumped. He’s ready to go down there now. We’re going to go have a good time.”
Like his driver, who lost the title to Tony Stewart on the basis of a tiebreaker in 2011, Rogers is seeking his first championship in NASCAR’s premier series.
“These are the things that you dream of when you’re a kid,” the veteran crew chief said. “You grow up watching this stuff. Just fun to be competing at this level and what an opportunity to go down there and contend for the championship.”
Also representing Joe Gibbs Racing among the Championship 4 is Busch, the reigning Sprint Cup champ, who is the only one of the remaining title contenders not to win in the Round of 8.
“We haven’t showed our strength here in a few weeks, but we’ve showed consistency. I’m hoping that this consistency is what shows our strength next week,” Busch said after Sunday’s elimination race at Phoenix. “We always talk about in this sport how top 10s lead to top fives and top fives lead to wins. Eventually we’re going to keep finishing in the top five and we just had three top fives in a row. It could be more than that, that’s what it was in this round – a fifth, a fifth and a second was as sporty as we could do, and we move on. Hopefully, Homestead is a little better.”
While Busch goes for back-to-back championships, Johnson will be chasing history as he seeks to join Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers with seven titles in NASCAR’s No. 1 series.
Johnson, who captured his sixth championship in 2013, has never won at Homestead but he and veteran crew chief Chad Knaus certainly know how to succeed when all the chips are on the table.
Finally, there’s Logano, who like Edwards comes to Homestead in pursuit of his first Sprint Cup championship. Logano reached the Championship 4 two years ago but finished last among the four finalists.
The Team Penske driver, who punched his ticket to Homestead with a victory last weekend at Phoenix, believes he’s much more prepared to race for a title than he was in 2014.
“We’ve got confidence,” Logano said. “I know we can do it. I don’t feel like it’s a longshot like it was last time. It was my first time there, I’m racing for a championship and it was, ‘Oh, my God, what’s going to happen?’ This time I feel like we’ve been here before. We’ve been in these situations.”