All I can say is, “WOW”. Talk about a melee’ last week at Phoenix. Not only was there a relative unexpected winner with Kevin Harvick taking the Checkered Flag, but the gloves more than came off, and the “boys have at it” mantra of NASCAR Sprint Cup this season reached a new high, or new low, depending on how you think about it. In the waning laps of last week’s AdvoCare 500, NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) fans were left with a lot to talk about, especially with Jeff Gordon’s getting into Clint Bowyer on the track, with the subsequent fight that broke out in the pits after the race. One would have thought that they had gone to a fight and a race broke out.
And after the fines doled out this week to NSC competitors and crews, including a $100K fine for Jeff Gordon, a $25K penalty for Bowyer’s crew chief Brian Pattie, and a $25K penalty for Brad Keselowski for having his cell phone in his car during the race (a new rule enforced after Keso’s earlier explosion of Twitter followers during the race delay in the Daytona 500), many NASCAR fans were left squawking, and talking. But in the end, aside of Harvick’s first win of the 2012 season, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, and Ryan Newman finishied in the top five. Brad Keselowski, who took the lead after Jimmie Johnson’s disappointing 32d-place finish, ended up sixth, with Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard, and Mark Martin rounding out the top ten.
With the shuffling that took place, Brad Keselowski now holds a fairly comfortable lead over Jimmie Johnson, 20 points up going into the last race of the season, with Kasey Kahne edging up into third (-50 pts), Clint Bowyer (-52 pts now out of Chase Championship contention), and Denny Hamlin (-62 pts) completing the top five. It now boils down to a single race, to crown a single champion. Now begins the answer to the question of who will win the 2012 NSC Championship, as Keselowski sits in the cat-bird seat, and only has to finish fifteenth or better to capture the crown Sunday.
The Miami-Homestead Speedway (HMS) hosts the final offering of the 2012 NSC season in the Ford EcoBoost 400. Driver, teams, and fans alike are in for 267 laps on this 1.5-mile oval, for a total of 400.5 miles. Historically, the 1.5-mile tracks favor the Roush-Fenway Racing (RFR) drivers, otherwise known as the “Roushketeers”, and of late that’s been the case, with Carl Edwards’ #99 machine coming home with the win in two of the last four races here. Hendrick Motorsports, who with champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, have done wonders on NSC’s tracks in the past, have yet to score a victory here south of Miami, FL. The biggest question becomes whether Brad Keselowski locks up the title tomorrow early, or if Jimmie Johnson has enough in the tank (or crew chief Chad Knaus has enough up his sleeve) to steal the trophy from him.
To complete the 2012 season at HMS, we’ll get rolling Sunday at 11am EST on SPEED with NASCAR Raceday, followed by a special season-concluding NASCAR Countdown at 1:30pm EST on ESPN, with the race broadcast itself starting at 3pm EST on ESPN. Johnathan Hilstrand, of the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch,” will be the Grand Marshall of this race and give the Command to Fire Engines. Chris Mann, a finalist on this season’s “The Voice” on NBC, will perform the National Anthem, with a four-ship of U.S. Air Force F-16s of the 482d Fighter Wing from Homestead Air Reserve Base right next to the track performing the pre-race flyover. Dave Mondragon, General Marketing Manager for Ford and Lincoln will wave the Green Flag and get “this party started” at 3:15pm EST, in what will likely be a true wild card race. Many termed outings at Martinsville, Talladega, and other tracks during the Chase as “Wild Card” races, but with the drama that has evolved in the last few races, particularly at Phoenix last week, the gloves come off and it’s all-or-nothing for the Championship. This won’t be quite the close shave that last season produced, when Tony Stewart won the Sprint Cup from Carl Edwards based on points, but it will likely be one for the books.
Best Bets: I can’t give up on the leader, plus a driver who “could have been a contender”, if he hadn’t gotten caught up last week in a wreck.
Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge) – Brad Keselowski is sitting in a great position this week, twenty points up on Jimmie Johnson. While has has yet to win here, his average finish is 20th in four races. I don’t really take a lot of stock in his past performance here, considering that Brad has five wins, thirteen top-five, and twenty-three top ten runs this year. He’s also second overall in points earned at the last four 1.5-mile tracks, and is first overall in points earned in the last four cup races. Brad has plenty of swagger, and ability, to bring home the Sprint Cup this year for team owner Roger Penske, in a year that concludes Dodge’s participation in NSC competition. Rather ironic, to be sure, but this could give Dodge renewed interest in entering a car in NSC competition. But it would be nice for the “Blue Deuce” to find itself back on top. Although Brad qualified third, and was fourth-fastest in Happy Hour, since Coors Light Pole Award winner Joey Logano hit the wall and will have to go to a backup car (starting at the rear of the field), Brad will lead the field to Green Sunday. Bottom Line: It’s Brad’s championship to lose.
Clint Bowyer (#15 5-Hour Energy Toyota)- Clint got caught up in the wrecks last week, in a race where he had a legitimate shot at a win. He’s been compared to many drivers, including Dale Earnhardt Sr, so said Mike Joy this week, prompting many controversial Tweets. I’ll at least throw in my two cents on this one, only to say that (in Mike Joy’s defense) I understand and agree with Mike, in that the way Clint has done his racing, and the way in which he’s likely to really come alive in Sprint Cup competition with Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) and his team in the upcoming years, that Bowyer may not only survive, but thrive in the next few years, and with his attitude about racing and his skills, he could prove himself to be a pseudo-driver akin to Dale Sr. All the hype notwithstanding, Clint only has scored a top-five and three top-ten finishes, averaging merely 14th in six races. But with his run this season of three wins, nine top-five, and twenty-two top tens, he’s more than proven himself capable. Bowyer’s third overall in points earned in the last four races on 1.5-mile tracks, is fifth in the last four runs at Homestead, and is sixth overall points earned in the last four Cup races. While (unfortunately) he has now no chance at a Cup championship, there is a bright future for him next year. Clint will start sixth, and was fifth-fastest in final practice.
Probables: Two Chasers, but although not in contention for the Cup, still have a shot at the win.
Matt Kenseth (#17 Best Buy Ford)- Matt makes his final run in the RFR stable, moving to Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) next season to take over the #20 ride from Joey Logano. And while Matt may likely finish sixth in the NSC points standing this year, he’s made one hell of run this season, including three wins, thirteen top-fives, and nineteen top-ten finishes. At HMS, Matt has managed a win, three top-five, and five top-ten runs, averaging just over 17th in 12 races. Kenseth has been fifth overall in points earned in the last four races at 1.5-mile tracks, and is second overall in points over the last four Cup races. Do NOT count him out Sunday, considering he’s one of the RFR “Roushketeers” that has dominated races at these 1.5-mile tracks. Keneseth will start back in eleventh, but was third-fastest in final practice. Could play a spoiler on Sunday.
Martin Truex Jr (#56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota)- Martin has quietly soldiered on this season, currently running tenth overall in the NSC competition. Although still winless at Homestead, he’s managed five top-ten runs. Truex only had seven top-five, and eighteen top-ten runs this season, but has averaged eleventh-place runs in seven outings at Homestead overall. He’s been no worse than eleventh in the last four races at HMS, and is seventh overall in the last four runs at Homestead for points. Martin only has one career NSC win, scored at Dover back in ’07, but he’s found a home at MWR. Expect him to be competitive Sunday; he starts seventh, and was third-fastest in final practice.
Dark Horses: Two of the last drivers many would expect to be in the DH’s this week, especially going into the Championship…
Kyle Busch (#18 M&Ms Toyota)- Kyle had challenges in final practice, running up against the wall and scraping up his machine, despite having the fastest lap time. Kyle has put up seven top-ten finishes within the Chase, which is pretty remarkable for someone who didn’t even make the Chase. He’s also third overall in points earned in the last four runs at Homestead. Kyle still has a lot to prove for this season, considering he’s only managed a win, twelve top-five, and nineteen top-ten finishes. While still pulling nothing but a top-ten finish at Homestead, Kyle has been very racey this weekend. He’ll line up eighth, and as mentioned, was fastest in final practice. We’ll see how his run-in with the SAFER barrier will fare on Sunday.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Chevy)- I’m actually reluctantly choosing Five Time as one of my DH’s this week. Although he’s the one to have a chance at reeling-in the Championship Sunday, he’s got a lot of ground to make up. If Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus want a sixth Cup Championship, they’ll have to pull more than a rabbit out of their hats Sunday. Jimmie has been no worse than fifteenth in three of the last four races here, has been no worse than ninth in the last four 1.5-mile track races, and is fourth-best overall at Homestead in the last four races. The other side, is that he’s first in points earned at the last four 1.5-mile tracks, and is third overall in points earned in the last four Cup races. Team 48 has a LOT of work to do Sunday to take their sixth Cup; Jimmie starts tenth, but was a disappointing eighteenth-fastest in final practice. My guess, is that this team is keeping something secret. WATCH OUT for them.
My “radar scope” drivers on Sunday include Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, and Aric Almirola. Carl has two wins in the last four races here, and has been no worse than seventh in the last four races here. Hamlin is third overall in points earned in the last four races here; he’s won here before and has averaged eleventh in seven races. Kahne starts 12th, and was 7th-fastest in final practice; he’s run fourth in the last four Cup races and sixth in the last four runs at Homestead. Almirola, who could have won last week if he hadn’t been unwillingly caught up in the late-race wreck with Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, and Clint Bowyer, starts fifth and was eighth-fastest in final practice. Might be a sneak-in later in the race.
Final Thoughts: I’m not going to get into the politics (yet) of last week’s race and penalties. That, I will leave up to my commentary in the off-season. Sunday will be, without a doubt, the best race of the 2012 NSC season. Too much at stake, and too much to gain, from the race’s results. I’m looking forward to the season’s conclusion, and while I will miss my weekly rantings, I’ll be anxiously preparing for the 2013 NSC season. Just too much to gain and too much to report on. So to conclude this year and let the NSC teams take a well-deserved break through the holidays, catch the race action on ESPN, potentially listen in on your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90). As usual, I’ll be providing my updates, race analysis, and an occasional rant on Twitter (@speedglutton). It all ends Sunday.
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