HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Spoilers.
In NASCAR, that word can have various meanings. Every car has one sticking up from the rear deck lid.
But this column isn’t about anything like that. It’s about what (and who) can end a championship run among the four Cup finalists.
Part of winning a championship is not to lose it. Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski will have plenty of opportunities to lose it over the 267 laps (more if NASCAR overtime comes into play) Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
In the end, it could come down to experience. It isn’t a surprise that all of the drivers in the championship have at least eight full years of experience in Cup.
“The young guys, they did a great job, but you’ve got 118 wins sitting here racing for a championship,” Harvick said about the four title contenders. “Experience will always matter in this sport. Obviously, there will be a day that I can’t do it, and Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott are going to have great careers and they’re going to be sitting here answering these same questions 20 years from now.
“But experience will always matter because that experience goes in a lot of things within those walls of the race shop, and how you help guide the company in a direction of performance and things that are good and things that are bad and how you navigate things with the company.”
Here’s a look at six potential spoilers that even those with experience might not be able to avoid Sunday:
The fastest place at Homestead often is up against the outside wall. It’s also the place where a driver can get into trouble, as Truex found out during practice Saturday morning when he scraped the wall with his Toyota’s right rear.
It was only a flesh wound and shouldn’t impact how he races. Truex, the championship favorite with seven victories this year and best starting position (second) among the four drivers, will still be the man to beat.
“[We] just have to get the balance right,” Truex said. “[The] conditions [and] trying to plan on finishing this race at night is part of what we’re trying to figure out.
“I think we changed enough and made enough adjustments today [in practice], and we learned a lot.”
Keselowski didn’t hesitate when explaining the biggest challenge Sunday:
“Holding on to the car,” he said. “It’s very, very loose. Running the whole race without hitting the wall is gonna be a big challenge.”
The drivers seemed flabbergasted earlier this week that they would have three fewer sets of tires this year than a year ago. Last year, teams had one sticker set of tires on the car, another 11 in the pits plus a set (likely scuffs) that they transferred from practice. This year, they entered the week thinking they would have the set they used in qualifying on the car and nine sets in the pits.
Drivers were concerned because even tires with three laps on them are significantly slower for a few laps than sticker tires.
NASCAR announced Saturday morning that teams could purchase an extra set of sticker tires, so now they will just have two fewer sets than a year ago.
“Am I happy about it? Happy is definitely not a word I would use to describe it,” Keselowski said Thursday before learning the teams would at least get an extra set. “I’m not sure how those decisions get made, but I’m told that it’s by people a lot smarter than me.
“So I’m just going to go ahead and trust that they had a really, really good reason for it. … Probably the reality is that it doesn’t favor anyone. It just disfavors those that might have trouble early in the race. So, if you run over something debris‑wise or if you have a loose wheel, it could be catastrophic.”
Expect the championship drivers to base strategies on what the title contender out front decides to do.
“It can be exciting … but I lapped the whole field up to third place one time and lost the race at Atlanta because one guy in the whole field had a set of tires left,” Harvick said.
“You have to pay attention to what you’re doing because this is going to be just like Atlanta, and you can’t get off sequence with the guys that you’re racing against for the championship because of the fact that you cannot have one less set of tires than they have — and if you do, you’d better figure out a way to get it back or hope that there’s not a caution that allows them to come in and put the tires on because you’ll be done.”
Drivers will block if they have to, as track position can be king. Edwards thought he had to keep Logano from getting position and ended up getting turned. The four championship finalists will have an attitude of more take than give in what typically is a give-and-take environment.
“You’re going to see some guys, if they don’t get a good restart, they know they’re going to have to block, they’re going to have to run low and put other people in a situation of whether or not they’re going to drive through you or whether or not they’re going to lift,” Busch said.
“Seeing what we saw last year, I think that you’ll expect that from that group, that they won’t lift and they’ll drive through you, so you’ve got to know what situation you’re in.”
But even that might not be enough.
“Restarts get crazy here because the track is so wide and there’s so many grooves, and the track’s slick, so it’s real easy to spin your tires and things like that,” Truex said.
Ill-timed cautions (especially late)
There’s no question that Ray Black Jr. had a tough time at Texas a couple of weeks ago. He’s back in the Rick Ware Racing car for Homestead, and whether it’s Black or another underfunded car that has an issue and impacts the championship, it could change the entire dynamic of the day.
In addition to other cars spoiling the day, drivers will look to NASCAR to treat them fairly. NASCAR has been criticized for debris cautions in the finale at Homestead (and most recently at the regular-season finale at Richmond), and plenty of eyes will remain on the NASCAR officials to see how much they let drivers race and when they will feel they have to throw the caution.
Also, if a driver spins late in the race, NASCAR will be scrutinized for just how quick, if at all, it calls for the yellow.
The timing of the cautions can force drivers to make a decision. Just ask Busch about last year when he decided to stay out late in the race.
“The big crash happened in Turn 1, and we cleared it. We didn’t have any damage or anything, but there were 15 other guys on the lead lap came and put tires on again, and Joey was one of them, and so on the ensuing restart Joey blew our doors off,” Busch said.
“That kind of forced our hand into the next restart with only three laps to go, putting tires on for ourselves and seeing if we couldn’t come back through, and nobody else came and put tires on on that one.”
Busch finished sixth, third among the championship drivers.
These two drivers are probably the best two at Homestead who aren’t among the four finalists. They both could use a win as a statement heading into next year.
Hamlin is on the pole, and here’s the sign that his team means business: It could have not taken the first pit stall and allowed Toyota “teammate” Truex to have it. Then again, Hamlin is a Joe Gibbs Racing teammate of Busch’s, so being friendly to Truex could have kept the title from Busch.
“It’s half satisfaction, half of it’s disappointment because you only run this good for so long,” said Hamlin, who ran up front most of the day last week at Phoenix before a tangle with Chase Elliott resulted in a crash that ended his hopes of advancing. “I feel like we timed out the playoffs really, really well.
“We performed great over the last three or four races, better than probably any stretch of my career that we’ve performed for that consecutive amount of weeks, qualifying second, second, first the last three. All that’s just been really good. But we don’t have our chance. We’re not part of the final four.”
With a championship on the line, drivers might not always make the best decisions. They could want to wreck anyone for the title, but they also know they would have to race each other for years to come.
“The line is very, very blurry depending on who you ask,” Truex said. “I know for me personally, I want to race the way I always race. I want to race ‑‑ I want to beat them fair and square. No funny business. But you can’t guarantee that everybody’s going to play that way.
“So then you’re like, ‘OK, I feel like this guy would do that. Should I do that to him if it comes up?’ You start thinking about it, but I don’t think it’s going to come to that. I really don’t. I hope it doesn’t.”
Busch wasn’t a fan of Logano after that wreck last year. Edwards went to Logano’s pit box and shook the hands of his crewmen — and then retired about six weeks later.
“I thought last year was out of bounds,” Busch said. “I thought that was terrible. But I guess when you’re blocking that hard, then you’re due to be turned, so I don’t know.
“I thought that was pretty nasty. But Carl handled it way better than anybody else I think would ever have handled it. Maybe he already had retired in his mind and didn’t care.”