Monday, December 11, 2017

NASCAR Chase for the Championship finale preview

NASCAR's previous 35 races have narrowed the championship contenders down to four. The finalist who crosses the finish line first at today's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway earns the title of Sprint Cup series champion. • In the final race of his final season, Jeff Gordon is trying to drive off as a champion by claiming his fifth series title. Kevin Harvick is the defending race (and series) champ and is vying to become the fifth driver since 1980 to win back-to-back Cup titles. • Kyle Busch can shake his reputation as perhaps the series' best driver without a title, and Martin Truex is looking to take his one-car Furniture Row Racing team to an unexpected series crown. • "I think we have four great storylines and four great competitors all deserving to be here," said Steve Letarte, a former Cup crew chief and current NBC Sports analyst. "It would really shock me if it doesn't take a win to win this championship." • Here's a breakdown of NASCAR's final four:

Jeff Gordon | No. 24

Average 2015 starting position: 12.0

Average 2015 finish: 13.9

Average finish at Homestead: 10.6

Season highlight: Gordon looked jubilant after earning his first win of the season at Martinsville to clinch a spot in the final four.

Season low point: Instead of winning his last Daytona 500 from the pole, he was caught up in a late wreck, then finished 41st the next week.

Snapshot: Gordon joins Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. as perhaps the three most transformative figures in the sport. Ending his 23-year career with a title would only add to that legacy. Hendrick Motorsports has been able to throw all of its resources into Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet and trying to earn a second win at Homestead in the past four seasons.

Kyle Busch | No. 18

Average 2015 starting position: 8.4

Average 2015 finish: 11.2

Average finish at Homestead: 23.1

Season highlight: Busch earned four victories in a five-race summer stretch that helped him get enough points to qualify for the Chase.

Season low point: It doesn't get much lower than the broken leg he sustained in February that sidelined him for the season's first 11 races.

Snapshot: Simply making the Chase was an impressive feat given his injury, but he advanced to the final round thanks to three top-five finishes in the past three races. Busch might be the best driver without a series championship, but accomplishing that won't be easy. He has finished outside the top 22 in three of his past five races at Homestead.

Kevin Harvick | No. 4

Average 2015 starting position: 8.2

Average 2015 finish: 8.9

Average finish at Homestead: 7.6

Season highlight: Harvick dominated early by finishing first or second in each of the first five races.

Season low point: His win at Dover advanced him to the second round but also drew criticism that maybe his extreme celebratory burn-out was done to prevent a proper post-race inspection.

Snapshot: The driver nicknamed "The Closer" finally closed the deal last year. He won the season's penultimate race at Phoenix to advance to the final round, then pulled away late at Homestead to win the race and the championship. Harvick has had a strong 2015, beating the other three finalists in 17 of the 35 races.

Martin Truex | No. 78

Average 2015 starting position: 12.5

Average 2015 finish: 12.2

Average finish at Homestead: 10

Season highlight: Truex's win at Pocono in June snapped a 69-race drought and was the peak of a blazing start (15 top-10s in the first 16 races).

Season low point: His two worst finishes of the year came in back-to-back races, at Sonoma and Daytona, where he finished 42nd and 38th.

Snapshot: Truex doesn't have a flashy name or powerful team, but he quietly has been one of the season's most consistent performers. Only Harvick and Joey Logano had more top-10 finishes (22), and only Logano was on the lead lap at the finish more than Truex (30 times in 35 races). A championship would be a remarkable story for his Colorado-based team and Truex, who led only one lap during 2014.

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