NASCAR Sprint Cup Power Rankings: One More Time
We have a championship battle on our hands.
For the first time since 2004, Sprint Cup heads to Homestead-Miami Speedway without a real clue as to who will secure the title.
Fresh off the disappointment of running out of gas in Phoenix, will Denny Hamlin be able to keep it together?
Can Kevin Harvick, a career 8.0-average finisher at Homestead, work a little magic?
Or will Jimmie Johnson, with the worst average finish among the three, make the right moves to win an unprecedented fifth title in a row?
For the last time this year, let's go through the Chase contenders and see how they've been performing:
1. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin led 190 laps at Phoenix, more than anybody. Yet a decision not to conserve fuel meant that he needed to pit in the race's final stretch, bumping him down to 12th in the running order and cutting Hamlin's points lead to a mere 15 markers.
The defending Homestead winner will guarantee himself the title by winning the race or by leading the most laps and finishing second. Possible? Given the past two weeks' performances, certainly.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Remember the 2007 Brickyard 400? Kevin Harvick had been leading but Tony Stewart managed to close the gap on him. Collected and confident, the ESPN broadcast crew broke into Smoke's radio transmission to hear what was on his mind.
"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty," Stewart called.
Johnson and his crew have that same kind of confidence going into Homestead. And why shouldn't they? They've only won the past four titles in a row. They can make up 15 points. And if they win, it'll guarantee them the title no matter what.
3. Kevin Harvick
Want to know how good Harvick has been this year?
Jeff Gluck posted a column to SBNation.com today that recalls Matt Kenseth's 2003 campaign, the dominant season that led to the creation of the Chase.
Gluck notes that Kenseth scored 5,022 points that year. Harvick has topped that by 87 with a race left on the table.
And, if you're wondering, he'd be leading Johnson in the non-Chase points by 295 right now.
Unfortunately, Harvick's title chances look slim. Assuming he wins the race, and all three title contenders lead laps (but none lead the most laps), he'd need Johnson to finish third and Hamlin to place ninth to score the championship. Not impossible, but unlikely.
4. Carl Edwards
What a weekend. Domination in both Cup and Nationwide events, culminating in Edwards' first win in 70 races dating to his title-worthy 2008 season.
That victory gets the monkey off Carl's back in the Cup at least. Now to put it together next year and make another title run...
At least this time his truck driver didn't vow to grow a beard until Carl won. That poor guy.
5. Matt Kenseth
Wait, wait, wait. Hold on. You mean to tell me that a guy who barely snuck his way into the Chase without any wins, who had been hanging around the back of the pack, is now the fifth-place man in points with three top 10s in his past five races?
And he's led at least one lap in six of the past seven races? He had only led in five events all year before the Chase! For 26 laps! And not since Michigan!
Talk about a turnaround.
6. Kyle Busch
His Cup season once again unable to yield him a title, Rowdy focuses his attention on securing sponsorship for his Camping World Truck team.
Reportedly, he's approached two open-wheel stars (Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan) in casual conversation about the ride.
Kanaan just saw an eight-year relationship with 7-Eleven and Andretti Autosport in the IZOD IndyCar Series come to an end, while Wheldon and Busch share NOS Energy Drink sponsorship.
Either would be an exciting addition to Kyle Busch Motorsports, even if open-wheel lifers have had little success in this niche of the sport.
7. Jeff Gordon
Bad news: Gordon had to deal with teammate Jimmie Johnson's former pit crew this week and will again at Homestead.
Good news: Gordon was not seen fighting anybody on SportsCenter this time around.
8. Greg Biffle
Biffle's fourth-place finish was just part of Roush Fenway Racing's excellent Phoenix day.
With Carl Edwards' win and Matt Kenseth's seventh-place run, they were by far the best multi-car entrant in the field.
Biffle, of course, has four top fives in the Chase. But he also has just as many finishes of 19th or worse. So much for that.
9. Tony Stewart
Joey Logano's finishes the past five races: seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth, third
Tony Stewart's finishes the past five races: 21st, 24th, 31st, 11th, 17th
I feel like somebody might want his old car back.
10. Kurt Busch
Busch placed ninth at Phoenix for his first top 10 since the last Dover race.
He also led 20 laps, his first time leading in the double digits since the last Atlanta race.
So much for the team that had been so strong on the mile-and-a-half tri-ovals competing well in the Chase.
11. Clint Bowyer
What a long, strange, inconsistent trip it's been. Bowyer's Chase has seen two victories, a runner-up finish, and a seventh-place run.
The other finishes have all been 15th or worse, including three outside the top 20. The latest came at Phoenix, as he came home 21st, the second car a lap down.
12. Jeff Burton
Good news: Burton was not seen fighting anybody on SportsCenter this time around.
Bad news: I forgot Burton was in the Chase again.
Have fun at Homestead this weekend, everybody! Good luck to all the Chase contenders. And, of course, thanks for reading.