The Inside Line: Final four set for Homestead

(SportsNetwork.com) – Two months ago, 16 drivers had hopes of winning this
year’s Sprint Cup Series championship, but now, just four of them remain in
the Chase, as they will battle for title in Sunday’s season-ending race at
Homestead-Miami Speedway.

After the first round in the Chase, the Challenger Round, A.J. Allmendinger,
Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, the 2004 series champion, and Greg Biffle were
eliminated from title contention.

Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most-popular driver, Jimmie Johnson,
the six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion, and Kasey Kahne were knocked
out of the playoffs following the Contender Round.

This past Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, Carl Edwards and Jeff
Gordon, the four-time series titleholder, as well as former Cup champions Matt
Kenseth (2003) and Brad Keselowski (2012) failed to advance in the elimination
race of the Eliminator Round.

Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, the winner at Phoenix, Joey Logano and Ryan
Newman are the final four. None of these drivers has won a championship in
NASCAR’s premier series in the past. Four teams — Richard Childress Racing,
Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske — and all three car
manufacturers — Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota — are represented.

Hamlin, Harvick, Logano and Newman had their points reset to 5,000 each for
Homestead, and the highest finisher among the four there will win the title.

Here’s a look at the four drivers who will compete for the Sprint Cup
championship at Homestead:

Denny Hamlin
No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Hamlin concluded the Eliminator Round as the points leader. He was the only
one who finished in the top-10 in each of the three races in this round.
Hamlin, though, had to bounce back from a one-lap deficit to finish fifth at
Phoenix. He suffered a flat tire during a caution in the early going and had
to make an additional pit stop.

This year, Hamlin has scored one win, seven top-five finishes and 17 top-10s.
His victory at Talladega in May earned him a spot in the 16-driver Chase
field.

Of the four drivers, Hamlin is the only one who has won at Homestead in the
past. His lone victory of the 2013 season came there. He also won there in
2009.

“I feel pretty optimistic,” Hamlin said of Homestead. “I thought we had a
great test there, and obviously no one saw that win coming last year. We were
a lot less competitive at the end of last year, and we popped up and won that
race.

“It’s just a track that suits me for some reason. It’s wide, tires wear out,
and you get to really, if your car is working well, make up positions there.
Track position is not crazy critical like it is at (Phoenix). Love it, love
the opportunity. We’re on house money now, so let’s go have fun.”

Hamlin’s average finish in the first nine Chase races is 12.4. He finished
second in the 2010 point standings.

Kevin Harvick
No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

Harvick’s win at Phoenix — his third consecutive and record-extending sixth
overall victory there — guaranteed him a final four spot. He came to Phoenix
ranked last in the eight-driver Chase point standings after finishing 33rd at
Martinsville and then second at Texas.

Can he keep his winning momentum going at Homestead?

“You just go down there and approach the week just like we approached this
week,” Harvick said. “Have fun with it, prepare your cars just like you’ve
done all year, and feel like you’ve already been in that position as far as
knowing how to prepare and how to mentally prepare yourself going into the
week, because we just came here and did it this week. We won the race with our
backs against the wall, had great pit stops and had great practices. They
prepared the car great in the shop. Just do it one more week.”

After spending the past 13 years with Richard Childress Racing, Harvick is in
his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing. And what a season it has been for
the 38-year-old Harvick. He has four victories, 13 top-five finishes and 19
top-10s as well as a series-season-high eight pole wins. His average finish in
the Chase is 8.8.

“I’m really proud of all these guys from Stewart-Haas Racing and (crew chief)
Rodney (Childers) for the group of guys that they put together over the
offseason, and to see this team build throughout the year has been something
that for me has just fueled life back into me to come to the racetrack and be
a part of something like this,” Harvick said.

Harvick has five top-10 finishes and 11 top-10s in 13 starts at Homestead. His
average finish of 8.1 there is best among the four drivers battling for the
title.

Joey Logano
No. 22 Team Penske Ford

Logano has a Chase-best average finish of 5.3, but he had to overcome
adversity at Phoenix. He received a penalty for equipment leaving his pit
stall during a stop early in the race. The fuel can was attached to his car
when he left, falling off just past his stall line. Hamlin went one lap down
but later became the beneficiary (lucky dog) during a caution, which put him
back on the lead lap. He ended up finishing sixth.

“When those situations happen, you try to stay calm, but it was just so hard
to do because there is so much on the line,” Logano said. “I wasn’t mad at
anybody. I was just frustrated trying to get up through the field and trying
to pass cars. When you’re doing that, you wear your car out so much that we
ended up going down a lap. We missed the lucky dog by one and then got our
lucky dog. Then we got crashed when the 18 (Kyle Busch) was spinning out. I
was able to recover for a sixth-place finish after all that.

“My hat’s off to all the guys on this team. They deserve to be in the final
four. We proved it throughout this whole Chase and really this whole year. I’m
glad to be sitting here and going for it and have some fun next week.”

Logano has five wins, including two in the Chase, 16 top-five finishes and 22
top-10s to his credit this season. He placed fifth (Martinsville), 12th
(Texas) and sixth (Phoenix) during the Eliminator Round, finishing only one
point behind leader Hamlin.

At Homestead, Logano has only one top-10 in five starts. His average finish of
20.8 there is the worst among the four.

Ryan Newman
No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet

Newman is the only one in the final four that has not won a race this year,
but consistency throughout the season as well as his aggressive driving on the
final lap at Phoenix has put him in a position to win the championship.

On the final turn of the last lap, Newman, who is in his first season with
Richard Childress Racing, bumped into rookie Kyle Larson while the two were
battling for 11th position, causing Larson to make slight contact with the
wall. Newman crossed the finish line in 11th and advanced into the title round
by only one point over Jeff Gordon, who finished second. Larson wound up in
13th.

“I think if Kyle Larson was in my shoes, he would have done the exact same
thing,” Newman said. “I didn’t take him out. He still finished the race…I
did what I had to do and tried to keep it as clean as I possibly could. I
don’t like racing that way, but there’s a lot on the line here, and we’ll keep
digging.”

Larson did not comment about his incident with Newman after the race but
addressed the issue via a team statement on Monday.

“Coming to the finish, there were a lot of cars racing really hard,” Larson
said in the statement. “I knew the 31 (Newman) was right around me and knew he
needed to gain some spots to keep from getting eliminated from the Chase.

“It’s a little upsetting he pushed me up to the wall, but I completely
understand the situation he was in and can’t fault him for being aggressive
there. I think a lot of drivers out here would have done something similar if
they were in that position.”

Gordon had been the only driver from Hendrick Motorsports left in the Chase.
He was attempting to win his fifth series championship.

“We came home second, and I just was hoping that it was going to be enough,
but when you hear those words that it wasn’t, it’s disappointing,” Gordon
said after the Phoenix race.

Newman has four top-five finishes and 15 top-10s in 2014. His average finish
in the Chase has been 9.8. He placed third at Martinsville and 15th at Texas.

At Homestead, Newman has four top-10s in 12 starts, with an average finish of
17.0.

“The fastest car may not win, the best car on a restart may not win. You just
never know,” Newman said. “It could come right down to fuel mileage and three
of the four of us could be coasting on the last lap. You just never know.
We’re in this hunt.”