Monday, November 14, 2011

Homestead-Miami Storylines: Only 3 Points Separates The Leaders

Edwards is a -155 favorite in Vegas to win title
3, 2, 1.

Three points. After 35 races, more than 10,000 laps and 13,000 miles run, only three points separate first and second going into the final race of the season, at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Under the previous points system, that roughly translates to 13 points, making it the third-closest margin going into the final race since the inception of the position-based points system in 1975.

Two superstars still in contention. One – the points leader Carl Edwards – eyes his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Tony Stewart’s the other. A 2011 championship would give Stewart three NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, and put him on a rarified level of NASCAR greats.

One championship. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship has had one home in each of the last five years – that of Jimmie Johnson. There will be a new champion in 2011, one that will likely remain TBD until the final lap of Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

And here’s a fascinating thought: The “Walk Off Win” factor. If Edwards wins Sunday, he’s the champion. If Stewart wins Sunday, he’s the champion.

The scenarios are many, depending on where Edwards and Stewart eventually finish. But a win would guarantee a title for both. Also, if Edwards finishes ahead of Stewart, he’ll win a championship. The bright side for Stewart: he owns the tie-breaker (most wins), so he needs only to tie Edwards to win his third championship.

For the first time since 2008, all three of NASCAR’s national series’ championships will be decided at the season finale at Homestead.

In the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. looks primed to win his first series championship. But it’s not over yet. Elliott Sadler is still mathematically eligible for the title, though he needs a stellar finish and lots of help in the form of a poor finish by Stenhouse in Saturday’s Ford 300.

In the NASCAR Camping World Series, three drivers remain in the mix: Austin Dillon, Johnny Sauter and James Buescher. Dillon, the front-runner, needs to finish 16th or better in Friday’s Ford 200 to become the youngest champion in series history.


Edwards Vs. Stewart: An Epic Matchup
Stewart has 4 wins in 9 Chase races (Getty)
Sunday it all comes down to Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart. All other drivers have been officially eliminated from championship consideration. A deeper look at the two combatants…

Carl Edwards: A picture of consistency, Edwards owns series-best numbers in top fives (18) and top 10s (25). But the reason he owns the points lead: his win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this season. Both Edwards and Stewart have scored the exact same amount of points over the first nine Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup races (356), but Edwards holds his scant three-point edge thanks to the three Chase bonus points he earned for his win at Las Vegas.

If Edwards holds on to his lead, he’ll join Bobby Labonte as the only two drivers to win both the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup championships.

History is on his side. There have been only three season-finale comebacks since 1975. In 1979, Richard Petty overcame a two-point deficit to overtake Darrell Waltrip; in 1992, Alan Kulwicki erased Davey Allison’s 30-point lead in the finale; and last season, Jimmie Johnson trailed Denny Hamlin by 15 points, but came back to win his fifth consecutive championship.

Another reason for optimism: His success rate at Homestead is practically unmatched. He has two wins, four top fives and six top 10s in seven Homestead starts. He owns the top average finish (5.7) and the top Driver Rating (117.5). He hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since his first visit to the track, a 14th-place run in 2004.

Tony Stewart: Here are the names of those drivers with three series championship: David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Lee Petty and Darrell Waltrip. All are either in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, or will be inducted in January. Stewart can join that list be wiping away a three-point deficit on Sunday.

Stewart already boasts this unique statistic: He’s the only driver to win a series championship under the Chase (2005) and pre-Chase (2002) formats. Now he looks to add another unique accolade, that of driver-owner champion. The last driver-owner to win a series championship was Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

At Homestead, Stewart has two wins, three top fives and six top 10s in 12 starts. His two wins came in the first two race at Homestead, in 1999 and 2000.

One shared characteristic: Grace under pressure. Edwards’ last two finishes: second and second. Stewart’s last two finishes: first and third. Both have an average finish of 2.0 in the last two races. They have performed their best when the season was on the line.

Shot Callers: Osborne, Grubb Vital To Championship Hopes
Though Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart will share much of the spotlight throughout Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead, crew chiefs Bob Osborne (Edwards) and Darian Grubb (Stewart) just might prove as vital to the championship hopes.

Neither have won a series championship in their career, but success has followed the two technical wizards throughout their NASCAR career. Grubb won the Daytona 500 with driver Jimmie Johnson in 2006, subbing for suspended Chad Knaus. Osborne has 18 wins in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career, with a best championship finish of second in 2008.

Both championship contending crew chiefs will be guests on NASCAR’s national teleconference on Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET.

End Of An Era: Johnson Unprecedented Reign Ends
We'll never see 5 in a row again (Getty)
With a career-high fifth finish outside the top 10 in the Chase, Jimmie Johnson has officially been eliminated from 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship contention.

But what an unbelievable run it was.

Johnson’s five consecutive title-winning seasons has never been accomplished before. And likely will never happen again. During that span, from 2006-2010, Johnson captured 35 of his 55 career victories. He won in all manners, with his last also his most impressive – erasing a 15-point deficit in the last race to overtake Denny Hamlin at Homestead.

So now what? Pride, in the form of a top-five championship finish, is on the line. Since Johnson joined the series fulltime in 2002, he has finished in the top five each season. That streak is teetering. He currently sits fifth in points, but is only two points ahead of sixth-place Matt Kenseth going into Homestead.

Magic Number: 19
When Kasey Kahne crossed the finish line as the checkered waved at Phoenix, it marked the 18th different winner of 2011.

The record for most different winners in a season is 19, most recently in 2001.

There’s one race left, and a number of drivers could help match the record. Most notable of the group is Greg Biffle, who has a series-high three wins at Homestead but remains winless in 2011.

Other winners from 2010 who remain winless in 2011: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Reutimann.

Major Milestones On Deck
Some rather notable milestones on tap for Homestead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series:
- Mark Martin will makes his 830th, which will give him sole possession of fifth on the all-time series starts list.
- Kurt Busch will make his 400th series start, the 48th driver to do so.
- Hendrick Motorsports continues its quest for 200 series victories.
- Ryan Newman continues his attempt to become the ninth driver to 50 career poles.

- NASCAR Media Services 

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