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Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami: Burning Questions for 2013 NASCAR Season Final

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2013

Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami: Burning Questions for 2013 NASCAR Season Final

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    While it almost seems like a foregone conclusion that Jimmie Johnson will win his sixth Sprint Cup championship in Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, there's still a lot of news left to be made this weekend.

    Matt Crafton only has to start to earn the Camping World Trucks Series championship on Friday.

    Sam Hornish Jr. has to really put the pedal to the metal if he has any hope of overtaking Austin Dillon and winning his first Nationwide Series championship on Saturday. Dillon leads Hornish by eight points.

    And of note, it will also be the last official Nationwide Series race ever: The insurance giant is ending its run as title-rights sponsor for NASCAR's junior series.

    But it's Sunday's Ford 400 that has a number of burning questions still to be unanswered, so let's take a look at those queries and how they may turn out:

1. Can Matt Kenseth Still Rally to Win the Championship?

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson has a commanding 28-point lead heading into Homestead. He needs to finish between 23rd and 25th to wrap up his sixth Sprint Cup title.

    But as we saw just two weeks ago with Jeff Gordon at Texas, anything can potentially happen in the heat of the Chase battle. Gordon came into that race in third place, 27 points behind Johnson, only to have a horrible race, losing an unheard of 42 additional points.

    Johnson admittedly has an easy task Sunday. He just has to start the race and ride around mid-pack or even farther back, stay out of trouble and he should be able to lock up the crown.

    But let's not forget what happened to him last year at Homestead. He came into that race 20 points behind Brad Keselowski, had a bad pit stop that proved costly, and then when he tried to make up some lost ground, he suffered irrecoverable mechanical failure that ended his championship hope and relegated him to a third-place finish for the season.

    Can Kenseth rally? He's already done something Johnson hasn't done at Homestead: He's won there. And Kenseth has only one thing on his agenda Sunday: to win the race and let the chips fall where they may.

    One thing that is not in Kenseth's favor: Johnson has been in similar positions in his previous five championships. Namely, he came into the season finale just needing a decent finish, and the championship trophy ultimately became his.

    Kenseth has his work cut out for him, but stranger things have happened in the Chase.

2. Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. Really Pull off a Top-5 Season Finish?

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Lost amongst the Jimmie Johnson-Matt Kenseth battle for the Chase championship, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on course to earn his best season finish since 2006, when he finished fifth.

    Earnhardt comes into Homestead in fifth, as well. He's six points behind fourth-ranked Kyle Busch and 17 points ahead of sixth-ranked Jeff Gordon.

    Mathematically, Junior could finish as high as second if serious misfortune befalls Kenseth, third-ranked Kevin Harvick and the younger Busch brother.

    On the flip side, if serious misfortune befalls him, Earnhardt could potentially finish as low as 10th in the final standings, as well.

    That's obviously a very large potential point swing.

    But there's one way Earnhardt can guarantee himself a top-five finish and the best overall showing in eight seasons: by winning Sunday's race. If he does so, it would be his first of the 2013 season, his first since June of 2012 and his first career win at Homestead.

    Sounds easy enough, doesn't it? (Yeah, right.)

3. Can Jeff Gordon Drive for a Different Five?

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    For the longest time, Jeff Gordon's so-called "Drive for Five"—his bid to win a fifth Sprint Cup championship and his first since 2001—looked good.

    Then came the disaster at Texas two weeks ago, and his championship chances ended.

    But Gordon still has a different type of "Drive for Five" heading into Homestead.

    Given that he's currently in sixth place, 17 points behind fifth-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr., it would certainly help smooth out some of the sting of how this season ended if he can finish in the top five in the standings.

    If he does that, it would be his best season finish since winding up third in 2009.

    Gordon is the defending winner of Sunday's race, and another win at Homestead could be just what he needs to achieve that secondary "Drive for Five."

4. Can Brad Keselowski End His Season on a High Note?

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    A win Sunday would give Keselowski something to smile about.
    A win Sunday would give Keselowski something to smile about.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    There's no question Brad Keselowski would have preferred to have been able to defend last year's Sprint Cup championship in 2013.

    Unfortunately, he fell short and will likely wrap up this season somewhere between 14th and 16th place.

    One way to put a positive spin on a season that didn't quite turn out the way he hoped is to do what Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and several other drivers aspire to do: namely, win Sunday's race.

    Keselowski won five times last season but has just one win this season.

    It would certainly bring 2013 to a close on a high note, while also sending him off into 2014 with a positive spin, as well.

5. When All Is Said and Done, How Will the Gen 6 Car Grade out in 2013?

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    Racier, more competitive and looks more like street cars in showrooms: That's the Gen 6 car this season.
    Racier, more competitive and looks more like street cars in showrooms: That's the Gen 6 car this season.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    For all intents and purposes, the latest configuration of the Car of Tomorrow—the so-called Generation Six Car—has been a very credible successor to the previous COT.

    While some drivers and teams took a while to get used to the Gen 6—which typically is normal when a new car is introduced into the series—there's one thing about this season's new ride that is quite pleasant.

    That is, there have been very few complaints about the Gen 6's rookie season. That's something that could not be said about the COT's first season back in 2008.

    Remember when Kyle Busch was asked what he thought of the COT after winning the Spring 2008 race at Bristol?

    His answer was very succinct: "They suck."

    Fortunately, the Gen 6 car has not had to suffer some of the same poor grades that its predecessor did in its first full season. Rather, the Gen 6 has made a very good impression.

    In other words, NASCAR got it right. It may not be perfect, but the Gen 6 still did what it was designed to do: brought us closer side-by-side racing and more competition between teams. And they looked much closer to the street cars you can buy in a dealer's showroom.

    How would we grade out the Gen 6 in its first year?

    A solid B-plus.

    Good job, NASCAR.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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