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Ford EcoBoost 400 Preview

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Here we go. This is it! NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl and Final Four all rolled into one.

Sunday's Championship Race at Homestead-Miami Speedway will finish off the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season and we couldn't ask for a better final four drivers to participate. After 35 races, including nine playoff races, Martin Truex Jr. will battle 2012 champion Brad Keselowski, 2014 champion Kevin Harvick and 2015 champion Kyle Busch for the 2017 title.

No more points. This is all about who has the better finish among the four drivers. The past three seasons we've seen the eventual champion leave no doubt about it and win at Homestead's 1.5-mile high-banked, paper-clip layout. Harvick did it in 2014, Busch in 2015 and Jimmie Johnson did it last season. The odd thing about those three wins is that it was their first win ever at Homestead.

Another oddity this week is that Chevrolet won't have anything at stake in this year's Championship Race. Chevrolet has been driven by 10 of the past 12 champions, including seven by Johnson, two by Tony Stewart and one by Harvick. But Harvick drives a Ford now. The only two drivers to get in the way of the Chevy steamroller in the past 14 years was Keselowski's Dodge in 2012 and Kyle Busch's Toyota in 2015. Truex, Busch's corporate teammate, will be driving a Toyota as well.

This will be Busch's third straight season competing in the Championship 4 and he's ready to go.

“It’s obviously a great opportunity to be able to go race for a championship, and that’s what this format is," said Busch, who grew up in Las Vegas. "It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make it to the Championship 4 if you don’t win it. You know, it’s all reset to zero. There are four of us who go for winner-take-all at Homestead. It means a lot to have that opportunity not only for myself, but for M&M’S Caramel, Toyota, Interstate Batteries and everyone at JGR who helps us to be as good as we’ve been. It’s what your whole season comes down to. I’m looking forward to Homestead and we’ll see if we can bring home another championship.”

As a fellow Las Vegan, it says in the city rules that I have to root for Kyle Busch to win the title Sunday, and I'm okay with that. And at least I'm not rooting for the favorite here because someone else has been much better on these type of tracks.

With this being a 1.5-mile track, we don't need to look anywhere else than Truex to identify who the overwhelming favorite is. The layout at Homestead is vastly different from all the tri-ovals around the circuit, but the set-up requirements are still similar. Truex has never won at Homestead, but did finish second there in 2006 and third in 2011. In 2015 when he was one of the final four drivers at Homestead, he finished 12th driving a Chevrolet at the time.

I remember wondering after the 2015 season why the Furniture Row team would make the switch from Chevrolet to Toyota. It seemed silly after he had his best career finish on a season with fourth-place to make the switch. Well, things turned out just fine and since the 2016 season no one has been better on 1.5-mile tracks than Truex. This season he won on six of the 10 races on them. He won four straight on them heading into November before Harvick finally ended his run at Texas. But Truex would finish second and lead a race-high 107 laps that day.

Harvick, who made the Championship Race due to that Texas win, is the active leader at Homestead with a 6.9 average finish and 315 laps led. he's finished in the top-five in eight of his 16 starts. Momentum from Texas will definitely give him a boost here, as will his experience of winning a championship already. That is the one edge he has on Truex. The Bakersfield native is pumped about possibly getting his second championship in four seasons.

“It means a lot, especially this year switching everything to Ford and just seeing the steady climb of performance and peaking as the playoffs started and running well on really every racetrack that we’ve been to," Harvick said. "And this has been, by far, our best round – all three top-fives with a win. It’s the right time of the year to be peaking. I feel really good about our mile-and-a-half program. Homestead has been a great racetrack for us through the years and, hopefully, we can go down there and contend. I think, for us, you’re really happy with where you are just for the fact that as a company we know what we went through and we’re kind of playing with house money at this point. So we’re gonna go down there and wing it and see what happens.”

Kyle Busch hasn't won on a 1.5-mile track this season, but you can tell that their program has been severely upgraded since July. Joe Gibbs Racing didn't even win a race in 2017 until the 19th race at New Hampshire (Denny Hamlin). Busch got his first win of the season in Race 21 from the pole at Pocono, then he'd win at Bristol, New Hampshire, Dover and Martinsville. That's five wins in a 15 race span which is where his edge rests. He's supremely confident and he knows he's got a car to get the job done and win his second title.

“It’s huge," said Busch of the opportunity to be put in a special class of NASCAR history. "It’s our opportunity to succeed and you know God’s given us every opportunity to go do that. Joe and J.D. Gibbs, Coy Gibbs, everybody on this Joe Gibbs Racing team, they’re phenomenal. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and the guys had great racecars for me all season long, but we were able to turn those good cars into wins the second half of the year and we were hoping for one more this weekend. That’s what it’s likely going to take to win the championship.”

I haven't seen what chassis his team is bringing to Homestead, but I have a feeling they want to close it out with their best and that would be the sweet ride they used at Kansas last month that led a race-high 112 laps. Stay tuned for details as chatter around the garage becomes more known.

Keselowski comes in as the long shot here just because he hasn't done much on the 1.5s since winning at Atlanta in March, the first race on a 1.5 in 2017. Every other team got better and they stayed the same. They didn't evolve and Toyota kept getting better. He won two of the first five races in 2017 and didn't win again until last month at Talladega, a track more about luck, the driver and throwing darts than actual performance of the car. Homestead won't offer that type of randomness which is why he is the long shot.

The best candidates to win among the rest of the field not involved in the Championship is Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth. Wouldn't it be something to see Kenseth possibly end his career with two wins to close out the season? I can't believe no team thought Kenseth wouldn't make them better. He doesn't want to drive a jalopy for an underfunded team, so he's saying good-bye after this race. Class guy, he'll be missed, and again I'm getting old. All my guys are retiring. I've watched them come in as fired up rookies and go as worn out veterans.

Anyway, Hamlin has won this race twice in his career, the last coming in 2013, and he's had a top-five finish in the past six races on 1.5-mile tracks. Larson finished second in this race last season, fifth the year before. This track fits him well because he likes to ride high right next to the wall all the way around.

Top-5 Fnish Prediction:

1) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (7/2)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (8/1)
5) #42 Kyle Larson (9/1) .

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