NASCAR & Auto Racing

5 things to watch in NASCAR Cup championship: Revenge, bad starts, and the inevitable

Martin Truex Jr., the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, is returning to Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend in hopes of winning his second consecutive title.
Martin Truex Jr., the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, is returning to Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend in hopes of winning his second consecutive title. AP

The NASCAR Cup Series title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway is finally here, and come Sunday night, we’ll be reigning in our newest champion. All four contenders — Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Busch — have stellar resumes at Homestead, meaning any of the quartet could reasonably walk away with the trophy.

If Harvick, Truex, or Busch are able to pull off the win, they’d become the 16th driver with multiple championships at NASCAR’s top level. And among active drivers, only Jimmie Johnson, with a record-tying seven titles, is still competing.

As for Logano, a victory at Homestead would give him his first Cup Series title and likely solidify his spot in the Hall of Fame.

But for all the circumstances and legacy aspects of Sunday’s race, there’s something else we need to worry about — the actual race.

Here are 5 things to watch this weekend, from the dramatic to the under-the-radar, that will play a part in who wins the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series championship:

1. Harvick’s crew chief situation

NASCAR handed Harvick about as untimely a penalty as possible after his victory at Texas two weeks ago. The Level 1 penalty cost Harvick 40 points in the standings, and without his good run at Phoenix, it also could have cost him his ticket to Homestead.

The other, perhaps more crucial thing it cost him?

Rodney Childers, his longtime crew chief, who was fined and suspended for the last two races of the season.

Harvick and Tony Gibson, Childers’ replacement last week, have a good relationship, and Gibson came out of retirement just to help Harvick. A fifth-place finish at Phoenix was a strong sign that Harvick should be fine, but it still bears monitoring how those two address Homestead. Harvick also swapped out a tire-changer with one from his teammate Aric Almirola, which also throws a smaller hitch into the plan and is something to watch all weekend.

After all, one slip could literally cost the No. 4 team a title.

2. Qualifying, penalties, and failed inspection

Not that it’s a regular occurrence, but all four contenders have dealt with failed inspections this season.

Each of the four has failed inspection at least once, with Truex failing pre-qualifying inspection three times at Phoenix just last week. While some of those failures resulted in drivers starting from the rear, sometimes — as in Truex’s case — the penalty has not been as severe.

The reason failed inspections matter? Some, such as pre-qualifying, can cost a team time in practice or even their spot in qualifying. Post-race inspections can cost them a victory altogether. With Harvick already feeling the consequences of one failed post-race inspection, it’ll be worth keeping track to see if any of the contenders have to start from the rear. That could change the course of the championship race.

That said, it also isn’t a straight-up death sentence. Jimmie Johnson started from the rear in 2016, when he won his seventh championship. Crazier things have happened, but don’t count on a repeat of that anytime soon.

3. Any Logano-Truex beef that spills over?

Ah yeah, more drama.

When Logano wrecked Truex at the end of the Martinsville, Va., race to clinch his berth at Homestead, he was serenaded with boos and faced anger from Truex.

“He won the battle, but he’s not going to win the damn war,” Truex said at the time. “I’m just not going to let him win (the title). I’m going to win it.”

And while Truex and Logano admitted they had texted some before last weekend’s race at Phoenix, the ill will is still apparent. The question is, will Truex retaliate and end Logano’s championship hopes? Or will Logano double down, if it comes to that?

4. Non-contenders (and the Kyle Larson rule)

Late in the 2017 championship race, it became apparent that Truex and Busch, running first and second, were going to battle for the lead. Seeing that, Kyle Larson — in third at the time but already eliminated from playoff contention — opted to hang back and not interfere in the championship-deciding final laps.

It took great discipline from Larson, but after the race, he was widely lauded for letting Truex and Busch do their dance without meddling.

But will every non-contender be as thoughtful or aware as Larson?

Should a similar situation arise this year, you’d have to think most would stay away from interfering in a championship. But what if...

5. The inevitable late restart

Now, not every NASCAR race ends with a late restart. But most of them do.

At least most of the best ones.

Last season’s championship race didn’t quite have a fitting one, as Truex simply outlasted Busch over the last 10 laps or so. But the year before? Well, several late cautions sent the championship into overtime, giving Johnson the opportunity for a prime restart and a shot at his record-tying title.

It’s not exactly science with these sorts of things, but if we figure on every other year? We should be due for some sort of late caution or wreck that leads to a restart.

And the beauty of that? From there, it’s anyone’s race.

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