As we head into the final weekend of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick have separated themselves from the rest of the pack to make it a three-horse race for the Cup. This has to be exactly what NASCAR officials had in mind when they created the Chase back in 2004 – the championship battle going down to the last race of the season.
All three drivers have a legitimate shot to win the championship. Just to give you an idea of how close this championship battle is, if Kevin Harvick wins the race and Denny Hamlin finishes eighth, but does not lead a lap, Harvick will win the Cup, as long as Jimmie Johnson finishes fifth or worse and doesn’t lead a lap. But, if Johnson does lead a lap, he’ll win with a fifth-place finish in that scenario.
If Johnson wins and Hamlin finishes second and doesn’t lead a lap, Johnson will win the Cup regardless of where Harvick finishes. If Hamlin leads a lap, though, he will be tied with Johnson, which means that Hamlin would win the championship because he has eight wins this season to Johnson’s seven (including Homestead).
Or, Hamlin will win the Cup if he finishes at least four positions behind Johnson (if both are in the top 5; three positions if both are between sixth and 10th, or five positions if both are 11th or worse – assuming Harvick finishes fourth or worse and doesn’t lead a lap.) See how convoluted this is? That’s how close it is… everything matters: leading a lap, staying in touch with your competition, no mistakes, winning the race!
So, with things this close, who is in the best position to win it? Logic would tell you Denny Hamlin because he’s got the lead. But, one stumble, one bad pit stop, and he could lose the Cup. So, it’s anyone’s ballgame.
Over the last five years, Harvick has the best average finish (7th) of the three contenders at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But, Hamlin (11th) and Johnson (15th) aren’t far off. He also has the highest driver rating of the three at the track at 101.1 compared to Hamlin’s 94.7 and Johnson’s 92.9. Harvick has four top 10s in the last five years while Hamlin and Johnson both have three. But, Hamlin is the only one who has won at Homestead in the last five years.
And, Harvick has not won a race on an intermediate, 1.5-mile oval this season. Both Hamlin and Johnson have two wins each on this type of track. But, when you factor in the finishes from all of the 1.5-milers this season, they are virtually even. Harvick has an average finish of 12th while Hamlin and Johnson both have an average finish of 11th. But Harvick leads all three with eight top 10s at mile-and-a-halfers, compared to Johnson’s seven and Hamlin’s five.
If you take the finishes from all of the 1.5-mile tracks this season and the finishes at Homestead over the last five years and average them, Hamlin leads the way with a 9th-place average finish while Harvick has an 11th-place average and Johnson has a 13th-place average. That translates into Hamlin having the best statistical chance to win the Cup.
But really, the bottom line is that any one of them could win or lose the Cup. It all will depend on how the chips fall on Sunday.