MIAMI (AP) — There’s no Jeff, Jimmie or Junior. Bad Brad missed the cut and Smoke never contended.
NASCAR’s biggest stars are all absent from this final field of four racing for the Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday.
The new elimination format introduced by NASCAR this season was designed to emphasize wins over points and create a survival-of-the-fastest finale. Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski were eliminated last week. Six-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, were knocked out in the second round. Three-time series champion Tony Stewart didn’t even make the 16-driver field.
It was a startling development for NASCAR, particularly since Earnhardt, Gordon, Johnson and Keselowski combined to win 18 of 35 races this season. They will be racing only for pride and a trophy on Sunday while Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman will be chasing the Sprint Cup championship.
The quartet lacks star power. But it is a formidable field and all four drivers have their share of tangled histories and compelling journeys that have them within reach of what will be the first NASCAR title for one of them.
Harvick spent 13 seasons driving for Richard Childress, who hastily called him up to the big leagues to drive Dale Earnhardt’s car just five days after the Hall of Famer was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500. He had raw talent to go with his hair-trigger temper.
But Richard Childress Racing could never get him close enough — he finished a career-best third in the standings three times — and he began talking to good friend Stewart about his future in 2012. Stewart told Harvick if he left RCR to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing, he could get Harvick a title.
Harvick joined SHR at the end of 2013 and this first season has been nothing short of magical. Harvick has four wins — including last week’s version of a walk-off home run to race his way into the finale — and his 2,083 laps led are tops in the series this season.
“These moments are what you live for when you’re racing or a professional athlete,” he said of his first true chance to win a championship. “You want these moments.”
To make room for Harvick, Stewart had to jettison Newman, the driver he brought with him in 2009 when he became part-owner of Stewart-Haas.
Newman got his pink slip last July and promptly won the Brickyard 400 the next race out. That victory raised his stock and Childress brought him on board. He drives Jeff Burton’s old car, but in many senses it was a bit of a seat swap with Harvick.
Newman, who won a Daytona 500 driving for Roger Penske and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway driving for Stewart, was the final seed in the 16-driver field after a steady if unspectacular run in the playoffs. Last week, he moved Kyle Larson out of his way to snag the last spot in the finale and bumped Gordon.
Despite just 41 laps led all year and no wins, he has a chance to end the 20-year championship drought for Childress.
“We’re in this hunt,” Newman said. “Just to have this opportunity, this is a chance for a dream to come true.”
Of the foursome, only Hamlin has been in this position before.
He was the points leader headed into the finale under a different format in 2010. But his nerves were shaky before he even got in the car and he lost the championship to Johnson. Hamlin hasn’t been the same driver since.
Last season, Hamlin feuded for more than a month with Logano, his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. Things boiled over at California when they raced each other hard and contact sent Hamlin hard into the wall. He broke his back, missed five races and failed to make the Chase for the first time in his career.
Logano, meanwhile, was on a career resurgence at Team Penske after failing to meet expectations in four seasons with Gibbs. The former 18-year-old phenom dubbed “Sliced Bread” was pushed into Stewart’s ride before he was ready when Stewart left for SHR.
Cast aside so Gibbs could add Matt Kenseth last year, the fit with Penske has been spectacular as Logano made the Chase for the first time last year, then held his own with five wins against the big dogs this season.
Now 24 and the youngest of the title contenders, Logano is racing for a championship against his old team and two drivers he has clashed with in Hamlin and Harvick, who relentlessly picked on him when he first came into the series.
Logano has never before been in such a high-stakes situation, but he’s done it by listening to the advice of crew chief Todd Gordon.
“Todd said to me, ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel at this point. You just polish the wheel a little bit and just become a little better in every area,'” Logano said. “That’s what we’ve been able to do. It’s been a fun ride so far.”
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