There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to NASCAR's current Chase for the Sprint Cup format, but perhaps the biggest positive of all will come to pass Sunday when four drivers compete for a championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are the only championship hopefuls remaining, and the driver who finishes best among them will reign supreme as the top dog in NASCAR Sunday evening.
Ahead of the unquestioned biggest race of the 2015 season, here is a rundown of the updated Chase for the Sprint Cup grid, as well as a closer look at who is left in the field.
Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida
When: Sunday, Nov. 22 at 3 p.m. ET
Updated Chase Grid
|Chase for the Sprint Cup Standings Entering Homestead|
|Position||Driver||Car No.||Behind Leader||Wins|
|4||Martin Truex Jr.||78||Leader||1|
Breaking Down Remaining Contenders
As the defending Sprint Cup champion, Harvick enters Homestead as the de facto favorite to win, or at least finish better than his three primary opponents.
While Gordon has won championships in the past, Harvick is the only contender who has won it all under the current format.
Harvick took the checkered flag at Homestead last year to clinch the title, and he believes that experience will be beneficial to him Sunday, according to ESPN.com's Bob Pockrass:
If you're not ready for (the pressure), it'll eat you up, and, luckily, I had Tony Stewart and a lot of experienced people to help me through that week last year because it was a lot different. ... I think that those comments and suggestions of how you handle your week have just rolled over into things that we've done this year, and you just don't let those types of situations overwhelm you.
In addition to knowing what to expect, Harvick has quite simply been the most dominant driver in NASCAR over the past two seasons.
As pointed out by Dustin Long of NBC Sports, Harvick has been a machine in terms of churning out top-two finishes:
A win guarantees that Harvick will take the championship, and a second-place result would give him a great chance as well.
Anything can happen over the course of a NASCAR race, but if Harvick is able to avoid getting swept up in a wreck, he is unquestionably the driver to beat as far as Gordon, Busch and Truex are concerned.
While Harvick has enjoyed the most success among those remaining in the Chase at Homestead, Gordon isn't far behind.
The 44-year-old veteran has 12 top-10 finishes in 16 career starts at Homestead, and he won there in 2012, so he is well aware of what he has to do in order to clinch his first championship since 2001, and fifth overall.
Sunday's race will mark Gordon's final NASCAR event as a full-time driver, and as one of the greatest performers the sport has ever seen, it would certainly be fitting for him to go out on top as a winner.
It has been an extremely long time since Gordon raised the championship trophy, and he concedes that the current system isn't necessarily the best fit for him, according to Pockrass:
There is no doubt in my mind that (the old system) suited my driving style. The reason I was able to win at so many different tracks was the consistency that our team had and that I had at all the different tracks. ... That paid off when you were trying to win the championship under a 36-race schedule. I didn't want to see it come down to that final 10, because some of those final 10 were not all tracks that suited me. It actually suited others pretty well and so I felt like it was not benefiting me.
While Gordon's assessment may be true, he is now in a position where he can throw caution to the wind and go for it in a one-race battle for the championship.
Gordon won his first race of the season a few weeks ago at Martinsville after coming close to taking the checkered flag on several previous occasions, and with that momentum on his side, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see him win it all in his last race.
Despite all the success he has enjoyed on the Sprint Cup circuit, Busch is still searching for his first championship, and it may very well come to pass Sunday.
Rowdy had to scratch and claw his way into the Chase after getting a late start to his season due to an injury, but he has made it all the way to the end, and he is a huge threat to win whenever he takes the track at any level.
It can be argued that he's an underdog of sorts since his average finish of 23.1 at Homestead is by far the worst of the four remaining contenders, but he believes he has some advantages, including the input of his teammates, per KyleBusch.com:
I'm really going to have to lean on my teammates. They're all really good at Homestead. Matt Kenseth is good there, Carl Edwards is good there and Denny Hamlin is especially good there, so I feel like, as a whole, everybody who can hopefully help me and give me everything I need to have the tools necessary to go into the race so that we can perform to our best and hopefully race for a championship. We know we have to win that thing. There's a slight chance that you might be able to finish second, but you better just plan on winning.
Busch seemingly always has a winning mindset, and that should serve him well in this race since he knows that just turning in a solid finish isn't likely to get the job done.
He has some demons to conquer at Homestead, but based on all the adversity he has overcome already in 2015, he is equipped to do so.
Martin Truex Jr.
There is no question that the biggest dark horse and the most overlooked driver entering Sunday's race at Homestead is Truex.
He has rebounded in a big way from a poor 2014 season, and the fact that he is part of a one-car team in the form of Furniture Row Racing makes him a natural underdog.
In fact, it has been more than two decades since a one-car team won the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, according to NASCAR Stats:
Few expect Truex to end that drought, but he believes the lack of expectations could work to the advantage of the No. 78 team, per Pockrass:
We don't have a lot of expectations on us. I think most people didn't even have us moving through the first round. For us, it's more about personal goals and wanting to prove people wrong and just go out there and really just do a great job. ... I think for some of the guys that are favorites or expected to be there, I think there's more pressure on them, so I think we're in a great spot if we can get to Homestead.
Another thing working in Truex's favor is the fact that he has enjoyed a great deal of success at Homestead over the years.
Although he has yet to win there, his seven top-10 and three top-five finishes in 10 starts suggest he has a great opportunity to be in the mix.
It certainly won't be easy considering the level of competition he's facing, but Truex is undoubtedly good enough to pull off the upset and become perhaps the unlikeliest champion ever.
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