This is it. The final race, and it’s down to two drivers: Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. One on one. Man to man. One is the current points leader and Sprint Cup Championship hopeful Carl Edwards. The other, two-time NSC champion Tony Stewart. But to set up the excitement for this week’s finale, a brief look at how the penultimate race ended in some relative excitement, where congratulations go to Kasey Kahne as he held off both Edwards and Stewart’s charge to break an 81-race winless streak to win the Kobalt Tools 500(K) at the Phoenix International Raceway :
Edwards went into this race three points ahead of Stewart, and although Stewart seemed to dominate, they finished the race second and third, thus keeping the three-point differential going into the last race this week in Miami.
Lots of hype and head-games this week leading up to the race. Earlier in the week, as the press conferences continued on South Beach and the Homestead-Miami Speedway (HMS), when asked by a reporter what lengths he’d go to in order to win the race, Stewart replied, “I’d wreck my mother. I’d wreck YOUR mother.” And when asked who would win the race (interview between Edwards and Stewart), it became more of an interview with Edwards, as Stewart became the reporter as well, asking Edwards, “Have you won the World of Outlaws race?” Have you won this/that race? Major head games. I suspect that will only be the start.
And it all comes down to this. Thirty-five races in the books for the season. Nineteen different winners, five first time winners, and couple of long winless streaks snapped. And yet there is still a lot of racing to be done. The points system used this system has created just what both NASCAR officials and fans alike have wanted: competition, awards for winning races, and a much easier points system to calculate. It’s also been filled with a little controversy, the two-car tandem, silly season’s layoffs, and perhaps most notably, Kyle Busch and his now seemingly reigned-in antics.
Ford Championship weekend concludes the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season with the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and it’s not just Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards that are the buzz. Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, started the weekend by winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr wrapped up the NASCAR Nationwide Series title by narrowly beating out Brad Keselowski in the Ford 300 (after already taking the title earlier in th race).
The Homestead-Miami Speedway, located in the South Florida swamps, is a 1.5-mile oval with variable banking that has already generated some excitement with the lead-in races. Pit window is around 75 laps this weekend, so doing the quick math gives a minimum of around four pit stops for each team, with a pit road speed of 45mph. The Broadcasts start at 11am EST with a special three-hour NASCAR Raceday on SPEED, NASCAR Countdown on ESPN at 2pm, and race coverage on ESPN at 3pm EST. Green Flag waves in the air at approximately 3:16pm after American Idol finalist Pia Toscano performs the National Anthem, international jazz artist Johnny Holiday performs God Bless America, capping it off with a scheduled pre-race flyover of U.S. Air Force F-16 aircraft from the Homestead Air Reserve Base, located right next to the track. Don’t be surprised if you see a number of passes by the jets, as final approach runs right next to the track (similar to final approach at Nellis AFB next to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway).
And as special guest starters today, First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden will be the Grand Marshalls, so anyone attending will have to deal with a lot of additional security, to include all the drivers, teams, and media.
Best Bets: This week’s BBs have to center around just two drivers, and it has to be the two in contention for the Sprint Cup. One would be foolish to not have them as the best bets.
Carl Edwards (#99 Aflac Ford)- I’ll lead off with Cousin Carl, as current Sprint Cup points leader. As I’ve mentioned throughout the season, the 1.5-mile tracks seem to be a favorite of the Roushketeers, and as the leading driver for the Roush-Fenway stable, this gives Carl a big advantage going into today’s race. Other advantages: in the last twelve races, 1) He’s finished out of the top-ten only once, 2) Edwards was one of the top-five finishers in the last four 1.5-mile track races, 3) He’s driving the same car he finished second in only two weeks ago at Texas, and 4) Edwards won two of the last three races at Homestead. Additionally, Carl has finished no worse than seventh his last four races at HMS (including two wins). Aside of the two wins here, he’s had four top-fives and six top-tens, finished third last night in the Nationwide Series race, was fastest in final practice, and BTW, won the Coors Light Pole Award for today’s race.
Tony Stewart (#14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy)-Smoke has advantages of other types. First, he’s won four of the last nine Chase races. He’s driving the same car he took the Pole at Charlotte, led three different times for 94 laps, and finished eighth. He’s finished no worse than eighth his last five races, and has won two of the last four 1.5-mile track races. He’s got two Sprint Cup Championships (2002, 2005), both before and after the Chase construct was instituted. Smoke also has two wins, three top-fives, and six top-tens at HMS, with four wins, eight top-fives, and eighteen top-tens, most of which were in the latter half of the season. He qualified fifteenth for today’s race and was twenty-eighth in final practice, but I suspect he’s keeping some things up his sleeve for the race. Don’t expect him to be mid-pack very long
Lots of different scenarios that can play out here today, but the basic fact is that if one of these two win the race, they win the Sprint Cup Championship. Just remember: three points separate Edwards and Stewart…three points. So keep track of any lap led (one bonus point), if one leads the most laps (one bonus point), and if Tony Stewart manages to finish more than two positions higher on the scoring tower than Carl Edwards (taking laps led into consideration). Should there end up in a tie in points at the end of the race, the edge goes to Stewart with the most wins for the season. Comparative edges listed below, and each driver has something going for them. I’m more of a “Bowtie” fan (i.e. rooting for Chevys), so I’m going to have to take Stewart as this year’s winner.
Probables: Expect these drivers, although not in contention for the Cup, to be running up front. Although they won’t win a Championship this year, they still want to be in Victory Lane at the end of the day.
Dark Horses: For the last race of the season, I’m picking one good finisher and one not so good over the last few runs at HMS.
AJ Allmendinger (#43 Best Buy Ford)- AJ has had a fairly consistent run these last few weeks. He’s had a P11, P10, and P6 his last three races, has been in the top-ten two of the last three 1.5-mile tracks, and even though only having run three races here at HMS, has been in the top-ten for two of three (with a P11 the other race). Qualifying twelfth and running fourth in final practice, don’t be surprised if you see him up front.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr (#88 National Guard/Amp Energy Chevy)- Dale Jr hasn’t had much luck here at HMS, but he and crew chief Steve Letarte seemed to have found something in the first practice session, where Stevie had said that Jr’s car was “stupid fast” (of course, his spotter TJ Majors Tweeted that Letarte beat him to that particular comment). The best he’s done here in the last four races is a P27, which is definitely nothing to write home about. But today Jr is driving the same car he took to his seventh-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway. He only qualified eleventh and was twenty-third fastest in final practice, but he “won” the first practice session. I’m thinking he might be due for a good finish today.
Other drivers that have a chance this weekend: David Ragan (#6 UPS My Choice Ford), who has put some good numbers up his last few races, was second fastest in final practice, and qualified thirteenth. Matt Kenseth (#17 Crown Royal Ford), with a win, two top-fives and four top-tens here, rolling off sixth and fifteenth-fastest in final practice. Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge) won the Nationwide race yesterday, and while “scoreless” at HMS, has three wins on the season in Cup, and finished thirteenth here last year; he’ll start behind Coors Light Pole sitter Carl Edwards in third,and was tenth-fastest in final practice.
Shoutouts/Rumor Mill: Re-visit from my shoutout last week…SiriusXM “The Morning Drive” co-host Mike Bagley, with all his connectivity troubles last week, happily resumed broadcasts from the D Pizzle studio on Monday morning. He had five technicians out, and they managed to get his ISDN line issues resolved. You’ll hear the Bagman and his morning cohort “Pistol” Pete Pistone this weekend at the track on MRN radio.
The Return of the Black #3? Dale Earnhardt drove the #3 car for Richard Childress to seven Sprint Cup (then Winston Cup) championships, and continued to be the “Intimidator” until his untimely death at the Daytona 500 in 2001. With Childress’ grandson’s entry into NASCAR competition and his winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Austin Dillon will undoubtedly join the elite field of the Sprint Cup in future years. But would he bring the #3 car back to the Sprint Cup races? Would fans think it heresy to take that number back out on the track; a number and a legacy so near and dear to their hearts? And, perhaps most importantly, would Dale Earnhardt Jr be upset to see a #3 running again on the track, much less him having to race it (and maybe his daddy’s memory)?
Dale Jr was interviewed this past week about that prospect, and apparently he’s alright with seeing that number back out on the track (even though it’s been in the NCWTS races), and he has raced that number in a few Nationwide Series races, most recently winning the NNS race at Daytona last year. Jr was quoted this past week, “I don’t look at the numbers tied to drivers as much as just the history of the number. The number is more of a bank, you know, that you just deposit history into. It doesn’t really belong to any individual. Austin’s ran that number and you can’t really deny him the opportunity to continue to run it. It just wouldn’t be fair. Dad (Dale Earnhardt Sr.) did great things. He was a great ambassador for the sport and we’re still as a whole, reaping the benefits of all he accomplished and what he did that put us in front of a lot of people. But even before that, the number was Richard’s…I think that it’s got to get back on the race track one of these days. It just can’t be gone forever you know?” (Jayski.com)
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