Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday for the championship race:
Turn 1: Who wins the NASCAR Cup title, and why? Who would be the biggest upset?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: I’ve been maintaining from the very beginning of the playoffs that Kyle Busch was the driver to beat, but my heart has been telling me Martin Truex Jr. I’m going with my heart. Brad Keselowski would represent the greatest upset because he has come the farthest, barely making it into the final round.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: This has been Truex’s season, but from the day this all-or-nothing four-team format was unveiled, I’ve believed it was custom-made for Busch. He proved me right two years ago. No reason to think he won’t do it again. The biggest upset would be Keselowski, only because he didn’t make it in via victory and he’s not yet done this type of finale format. But labeling that an upset might be a stretch.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Truex wins it because he has dominated the entire season (especially at intermediate tracks) and delivered a confident smile when asked about his test at Homestead a few weeks ago. Keselowski, just based on how the team has run, would definitely rank as the biggest upset.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: I think Truex will be the champ when it’s all said and done. I know Homestead isn’t the same as the other 1.5-mile tracks, but it’s still more similar to the tracks where Truex has dominated this year to the tune of six of his seven wins. The biggest upset would be Keselowski, only because he’s won once in the last 29 races and has a worse average finish and fewer laps led than the other three finalists.
Turn 2: After Homestead, do you expect to see Matt Kenseth in a Cup Series race again?
Craven: No. It’s been a difficult few months during which Kenseth has had to come to grips with the reality that this is the end, but it’s not as though he didn’t have opportunities, it’s just that the opportunities didn’t meet his expectations. That’s a simple reality that comes late in a driver’s career. I’m happy for him and I’m proud of him. He’s going out a winner!
McGee: I do. But not full time.
Pockrass: No. I think he has accepted his fate and while he could be the first call when someone gets injured, he’ll wonder if it’s worth it to come back.
Willis: Unless we get a Mark Martin or Jeff Gordon situation where he gets called on for a short-term substitute job, I think Kenseth will be driving into a Wisconsin sunset. Kenseth will turn 46 early next season, and rare is the driver who is a consistent threat to win in his mid-to-late 40s. In a way, it’s good to see a driver go out with something still left in the tank as opposed to riding in a semi-competitive ride.
Turn 3: Will Jimmie Johnson win an eighth title before he’s done? Will Denny Hamlin win one?
Craven: The difficulty for Johnson doesn’t lie in his ability or his commitment or his determination. The difficulty comes in the form of all the young drivers emerging that are going to collect a lot of wins and create obstructions between him and an eighth title. That’s what Johnson did to Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kenseth: he prevented them from accumulating more titles while marching into the record books. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Busch and Joey Logano are going to challenge as the next great driver. I say Jimmie has a 25 percent chance of winning an eighth title. Denny should win a title before his career is over.
McGee: I believe Johnson has at least one more title run in him. Even as off as the team was this season he still won three races and nearly made the final round of the postseason. However, when he does win that title I wouldn’t be surprised if he hung up his helmet almost immediately. Hamlin is starting to get a Rusty Wallace kind of feel to his career. He’s go or blow. The hammer-down approach that made Rusty so great is also what kept him from winning championships. The “I don’t give a damn what y’all think” thing that Hamlin always has going on seems to translate into momentary focus blackouts. That wins races. It doesn’t win Cups.
Pockrass: No and yes. Johnson made a living driving a loose race car and it doesn’t appear he can get the feel he wants anymore. Maybe the new Camaro helps, and in this format, he probably has a better chance to win an eighth than in the pre-elimination days. Hamlin will win one. The law of averages is with him, and he’s a good enough driver with a good enough team to get it done.
Willis: There’s only so many titles to go around, so I’m not going Oprah style (You get a title! You get a title!). Johnson will win an eighth. He’s 42-years old, the same age that Richard Petty was when he won his seventh and a year younger than when Dale Earnhardt won his seventh and final title. But I think Johnson will win an eighth because of the physical condition he’s in, and the fact that Hendrick Motorsports has always caught back up to the pack whenever they’ve seemed a step behind. Hamlin, on the other hand, falls victim to the fact that he doesn’t seem to collect wins quite at the rate of him teammate Busch, and wins are king in this format. Since his eight-win, oh-so-close-to-a-title year of 2010, he’s only once won more than three times in a season, with three single-win seasons.
Turn 4: How will you remember Martin Truex Jr.’s season if he doesn’t win the championship?
Craven: The same way I remember Mark Martin and the class and dignity he displayed during his career. Win, lose or draw, Truex has made his mark on the sport. He competes the right way. He has earned the respect of his peers. He’s a class act.
McGee: I’ve said it before, his comeback is one of the best stories I’ve covered in my couple of decades of covering this sport. A guy who’s career was done driving for an outlier team that started as a start-and-parker with a girlfriend who continues to stare down cancer, and during the playoff they lost a team member to a heart attack and their team owner is recovering from heart surgery. Oh, and this is the guy who was handpicked by Dale Earnhardt Jr. to receive his big career break. People who tell me they’re rooting against Truex are nuts.
Pockrass: It would be a championship-caliber season without the trophy.
Willis: I’ll remember his season as one of the most endearing title runs in memory, because of the situation with longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex and because of how far he’s come from losing his ride over the fallout from the controversy with Michael Waltrip Racing. Also, I’ll remember this as one of the dominant non-title seasons, which are more common than you’d think. Since 1990, this is the eighth time a driver has had seven wins and 2,000 laps led in a season. In four of the previous seven, the driver didn’t win the title that year, twice by Wallace and once each for Gordon and Dale Jarrett. That’s Hall-of-Fame company for Truex, even if he doesn’t win the title.