NASCAR will crown a new Champion today in the Ford EcoBoost 400 from Homestead-Miami Speedway. A victory by Favorites Kyle Busch(18) and Kevin Harvick(4) or last year’s Champ Martin Truex Jr.(78) would make each a 2-time winner. Joey Logano(22), he’s racing for his first Cup title. As the Championship weekend has proved, any one of the 4 can pull off the victory.
Other Story Lines
The Championship battle is the highlight of the day. However, other stories will play out during the course of the afternoon. Today is the final race for the pairing of Jimmie Johnson(48) and crew chief Chad Knaus. After 16 years Hendrick Motorsports is reassigning Knaus to guide the William Byron(24) crew in 2019.
Matt Kenseth is stepping aside again. After coming out of retirement to help the efforts of Rousch Racing this past season. Matt will hang up the helmet, likely for good, at the end of today’s race.
This is the final race for Furniture Row Racing. Last year’s Championship winning team is disbanding at the end of the season. Team owner Barney Visser was unable to put together a sponsorship arrangement that would allow the team to compete in 2019. Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn move to Joe Gibbs Racing next year.
The Sport and The Race
For all the dire predictions brought about by the drop in television viewership and empty seats at some tracks, NASCAR appears very healthy. Team Penske and JGR reported multiple new interested parties seeking sponsorship opportunities with their organizations. NASCAR continues to work with teams on the revenue structure that supports the sport.
The grandstands sold out for today’s race. Fan anticipation is at a fever pitch. Most of the talking heads are saying this is the best Championship 4 field ever assembled. In a few hours, we will know. Stages are 80, 80, and 107 laps.
The two races already completed this Championship Weekend ran without cautions, other than those scheduled at the end of Stages. Pit stops are critical, Tyler Reddick proved that last night. Race strategy management combined with mistake-free performance could well be the key to victory.
Finally, unique to NASCAR, the 35 other cars on the track today could help determine the outcome of the Championship. Put an end to the hype. It’s time to drop the green flag and settle things on the 1.5 miles of payment in Homestead.
The start of the race was delayed slightly as the track crew received an interesting assignment. Part of the pre-race festivities included a skydiver trailing the American flag aiming to make a landing in the grass off Turn 1. In an epic and embarrassing fail, he missed. Getting tangled in the catch fence at the end of the front stretch. Quick action with a forklift freed the poor guy left dangling in his harness above the pavement.
What happens at a NASCAR race when it gets windy?
Skydivers… stuck in a fence. pic.twitter.com/PexO0NxXU9
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 18, 2018
What was that about the other competitors impacting the Championship race? Regan Smith(95) developed an oil leak on the warm-up laps. He doused the entire speedway with a streak of oil. Track crews were called on again to clean-up the mess. Further delaying the start. Could extra laps prior to the start be a factor in fuel calculations? Smith failed to make the start, taking the car to the garage.
When the green flag waved it was the pole sitter, Denny Hamlin, jumping out to a 5 car length lead driving into Turn 1.
Hamlin continued to stretch his lead, 20 laps in he led by over 3 seconds. Behind Hamlin, the Championship 4 filled spots 2 through 5. In order Busch, Logano, Harvick, and Truex. After 25 laps were on the board Regan Smith finally exited the garage to start his race.
Harvick performed poorly during practice and qualifying. He started the race in 12th place. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver had moved to 3rd when leader pit stops began at Lap 37. After green-flag pit stops cycled through the field, Harvick found himself in 2nd. He passed Hamlin and took the lead on Lap 43.
Truex was the last of the Championship 4 to pit. Just like last night, staying out on old tires costs valuable time. He returned to the track in 10th position over 10 seconds behind the leader.
Kyle Larson(42), riding the high-line moved up the leaderboard late in the Stage. He took second away from Kyle Busch on Lap 69. Truex moved back into the top 5 at Lap 75. Joining the other 3 contenders and Larson at the front of the field.
As the green and white checkered flag waved it was Harvick, Larson, Kyle Busch, Logano, and Truex. It was the 7th straight Stage to go caution free with the exception of Stage ending yellow flags.
Kyle Busch restarted in 9th after trouble with the front tire changes on his pit stop. Larson quickly moved his way into the lead after the restart, but could not hold on. Logano took the top spot and established some space between himself and Larson. Harvick and Truex ran 3rd and 4th with Aric Almirola(10) a new entrant into the top 5.
Swapping the lead among the Championship 4, Harvick motored past Logano to try and run down Larson. Showing the importance of clean air. It took Kyle Busch almost half of the Second Stage to move back into the top 5.
Green Flag Pit Stops
All 4 of the contenders pitted within a lap of each other halfway through the Stage. After all the leaders made stops, Larson maintained the lead. Harvick, Truex, and Logano followed. Kyle Busch again lost time in the pits, exiting 8th.
At Lap 135, there were 18 cars on the lead lap. The rest of the field was 2 laps or more down to Larson as he continued to set a blistering pace.
The Caution Flag Waves
The first accident caution of the weekend occurred on lap 138 as Erik Jones(20) contacted the wall. While he kept his car under control, debris on the track caused the yellow flag to wave. The race off pit road was won by Larson. The Championship 4 followed. Harvick, Logano, Truex, and Busch.
Harvick, using the bottom lane, was able to pass Larson on fresh tires. Larson seems to have to wait for a few laps until his tires heat up before he can fully commit to the top groove. With 5 laps to go in the Stage, Larson took to the top of the track and ran Harvick down. Larson passed Harvick exiting Turn 4 and took the green and white checkered flag to win Stage 2.
The Final Stage
Exiting pit road, the 4 contenders take command. Logano, Harvick, Truex, and Busch led the pack to the restart. Larson ran 5th. Sunset settled in over the Speedway, how will the track change at nighttime? Logano appears to benefit as he drives away from his challengers.
It’s a dangerous game running inches from the wall. A small mistake and you’re in the wall. Kyle Larson could not avoid the potential disaster as he tagged the barrier in Turn 3 on Lap 192. With the caution displayed, pit stops again loomed critical. Logano out first, followed by Truex, and Harvick. Unbelievably, Kyle Busch’s team had a miscue. The front tire changer got his air hose caught under the splitter on the front of the car. The delay was enough to cause Busch to drop to 8th place for the restart.
Outside The Fuel Window
With 70 laps to go the field will have to make a return to pit road for fuel in order to complete the race. Kyle Busch quickly responded to the pit miscue and drove back to the 4th spot. Trailing Logano, Truex, and Harvick. As the spots on the track remain consistent will it be a quick pit for fuel that settles the Championship?
With the laps ticking down, Truex’ car seemed to come in for the longer runs. On Lap 216 Truex caught Logano. For 2 laps they battled side-by-side. Truex fell victim to Logano at Martinsville on a final lap bump and run. He said repeatedly this weekend, the 22 car would be one he would bump out of the way if it came down to winning the Championship. They raced mostly clean with some slight contact between the 2 contenders. Until Truex moved to the lead at Lap 218.
Final Pit Stops
Harvick was the first to pit at Lap 230. Truex and Logano pitted on Lap 231. An issue with the jack on the Truex car allowed Logano to beat him off pit road. Harvick pitting first put him in the lead. Logano and Harvick now have the advantage. Kyle Busch, struggling all day for speed and track position, opts to stay on the track and hope for a caution.
As the short-run speed of Logano fades, Truex again moves to his bumper. He completes the pass on Lap 246 and sets off after Harvick.
With 21 laps to go, the whole complex of the races changes. Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski(2) gets into the rear of Daniel Suarez(19) spinning him out. The ensuing caution sets up a competition on pit road. For the first time today, Kyle Busch has a great pitstop and exits with the lead. The first 4 off pit road? The Championship 4, of course. Truex restarts 2nd, Logano 3rd, and Harvick 4th.
The race restarts with 15 laps to go. Truex outraces Busch into Turn 1. Logano passes Busch to get to the rear bumper of Truex. Logano easily moves past Truex and begins to open a slight lead. Will Truex’ car come in as the laps wind down? Is Logano’s car going to fade before he can get to the checkered flag? Will the finish be a payback opportunity for Truex?
Maybe fearing the consequences of Truex getting to his bumper, Logano maintained a safe distance ahead of the 78 car. Taking the checkered flag not only gave Logano his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship. It set a number of records.
Ford celebrated their first Driver’s Championship since 2004 when Kurt Busch won for Roush Racing. Logano’s win also gave Ford the 2018 NASCAR Manufacturers Championship. Ford’s first since 2002. The last time Ford won both Championships in the same season was 1999. Dale Jarrett driving for Robert Yates Racing accomplished the driver’s share.
The cream rises to the top. With 39 cars running at the finish, the Championship 4 finished in the top 4 spots. The first time that has happened under the current playoff format. Martin Truex Jr. placed 2nd, failing to repeat as Champion. A bittersweet ending to the Furniture Row Racing Team.
For Team Penske the win was the 33rd Championship in all forms of racing for the organization. A remarkable accomplishment for the most successful owner in motorsports.
The odds-on favorite to win, Kevin Harvick, worked with a mishandling race car and almost pulled off the victory. He wound up in 3rd place, 2 seconds between Truex.
Kyle Busch took the best pit stall from his teammate on orders from team owner Joe Gibbs. Then had pit troubles all night long. Finishing last among the Championship 4. Karma?
Here’s hoping NASCAR 2019 is as exciting a year as this one. How many days until Daytona?
Results of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway
|2||78||Martin Truex Jr.||1.725||267|
|16||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||14.241||267|