Breaking down the Championship 12

Brett Moist/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

After eight months of grinding, weeks of elimination racing and a whirlwind of drama and tension, the Championship 4s for each of NASCAR’s national series have been set.

A total of 12 drivers will enter Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend in search of a championship celebration. From rugged veterans and previous champions to gritty newcomers that survived their first playoff gauntlet, each contender brings a unique skillset and story to the table.

Three people will hoist championship trophies this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but before we figure out which drivers those will be, here’s a breakdown of the contenders.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

The Grid: Three previous champions in search of their second title, and a dominant veteran that seems poised to deny them all.

Martin Truex Jr.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

2017 Stats: Seven wins, 18 top fives, three poles, 19 stage wins

Career Stats (14 years): 14 wins, 66 top fives, five playoff appearances, two Championship 4 appearances

Best Playoff Result (2014-Present): Fourth (2015)

How He Got Here: With one of the best performances in recent playoff history.

Truex was a force to be reckoned with throughout the 2017 season. After nearly claiming the Daytona 500, the New Jersey native methodically took over and dominated the regular season with four race wins and 18 stage wins during the new race format’s inaugural tour.

The playoffs were quiet for Truex, given that he won just one stage in the postseason’s first three rounds. But the Furniture Row Racing veteran’s end results have actually been better. Truex held a healthy playoff advantage that kept him from feeling the risk of elimination, but he proved not to need it with three wins and eight top fives in the opening nine events of the postseason.

Based on the strength of his runs, Truex cruised into the Championship 4 with little issue.

Championship Odds: High

While he’s the only driver to enter the Cup Series’ Championship 4 without a previous title, Truex is arguably the best bet of the quartet. He and Furniture Row have proven nearly unstoppable throughout the playoffs, and particularly on intermediate tracks such as Homestead. Truex has never won at Homestead – his best finish is third in 2011 – but none of his stats from prior years matter in the context of this breakout season.

This has been Truex’s year. Now the time has come for him to cap it off with a career-defining title run.

Kyle Busch

(Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

2017 Stats: Five wins, 13 top fives, 14 stage wins

Career Stats (14 years): 2015 MENCS champion, 43 wins, 160 top fives, 10 playoff appearances, three Championship 4 appearances

Best Playoff Result (2014-Present): First (2015)

How He Got Here: By surviving and surging when it counts.

Busch started 2017 quietly, scoring just one top five in the opening 10 events and generating the most buzz with a post-race brawl at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He wasn’t the only one struggling at the time. Save for Truex, all of the Toyota fleet were underperforming. But over the summer months Toyota began to heat up, and few were as hot as Busch. It took until the second trip to Pocono Raceway for Busch to win, but the Nevadan followed with four wins in the ensuing 12 races to elevate himself into a legitimate championship contention.

The playoffs threw a challenge Busch’s way when he scored finishes of 29th, 27th and 10th in the Round of 12, but his heavy playoff points advantage – owed in large part to his 14 stage wins this season – were enough to keep the 32 year old’s championship chase alive.

Busch bounced back from his mid-playoff slump with a win in the Round of 8 opener at Martinsville Speedway, guaranteeing himself into the final four.

Championship Odds: High

If Truex is the favorite to take the Cup Series title this weekend, then Busch is a close second. The 2015 MENCS champ has proven to be every bit of Truex’s equal in the postseason, scoring three of his five wins during the playoffs.

Busch also has experience succeeding on this stage. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver already managed to clinch a championship win with a Homestead victory in 2015, and he’s the first driver to clinch his way into the Championship 4 for three-straight years.

Kevin Harvick

(Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

2017 Stats: Two wins, 13 top fives, six stage wins

Career Stats (17 years): 2014 MENCS champion, 37 wins, 167 top fives, 11 playoff appearances, three Championship 4 appearances

Best Playoff Result (2014-Present): First (2014)

How He Got Here: By doing what he does best – closing.

Harvick, or ‘The Closer’, as he’s nicknamed, spent most of the year flying under the radar as he and Stewart-Haas Racing adapted to Ford after an offseason manufacturer change from Chevrolet. An early trip to Atlanta Motor Speedway saw Harvick fail to win after a dominant race, but otherwise the 2014 MENCS champion was rarely in the winning conversation.

A triumph in the summer trip to Sonoma Raceway clinched Harvick a playoff spot, and once the postseason arrived the 41-year-old did just enough to survive and advance.

The first two rounds weren’t pretty. Harvick finished 36th at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the Round of 16, and 20th at Talladega Superspeedway in the Round of 12. But both times the grizzled veteran did just enough to keep his title bid alive.

In the Round of 8 Harvick lived up to his nickname. He finished fifth at Martinsville to set himself up to advance on points, but didn’t need to after surging late to pass Truex and win at Texas Motor Speedway the following weekend.

Championship Odds: Okay…?

Among the 12 championship contenders this weekend, none are as difficult to predict as Harvick.

A look at the veteran’s season would make you think he’s a long shot. Harvick has only two wins on the year, and he’s finished outside of the top 10 in 13 of the 35 races to date.

However, what Harvick lacks in 2017 results he makes up for in experience and intangibles.

Harvick has made the Championship 4 three times in the opening four years of NASCAR’s elimination playoff format. In the previous two years (2014 and ’15) he finished first and second at Homestead. In 2016, a year where he couldn’t keep his playoff hopes alive to Homestead, he still managed a third-place result in the season finale.

Throughout his tenure at SHR, Harvick has made a name for himself with clutch performances on NASCAR’s biggest stages. ‘The Closer’ will need to live up to his name with another one this weekend if he hopes to clinch a second MENCS championship.

It won’t be easy. But you’d be foolish to count him out.

Brad Keselowski

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

2017 Stats: Three wins, 15 top fives,

Career Stats (10 years): 2012 MENCS champion, 24 wins, 90 top fives, six playoff appearances

Best Playoff Result (2014-Present): Fifth (2014)

How He Got Here: With a speed, consistency and, admittedly, a bit of luck.

Keselowski has spent much of the playoff era as one of the best drivers in the Cup Series garage, but until this year he’d been denied a spot in the Championship 4, losing out amid rivalries, mechanical woes and crashes.

This year the Michigander reversed the trend by doing something he hasn’t done much over his career – flying under the radar.

Keselowski earned a trip to the playoffs with two early wins at Atlanta and Martinsville. But afterward he went quiet, going winless from through the summer months and into the playoffs despite four runner-up finishes.

That quiet streak continued into the postseason. Keselowski breezed through the Round of 16 with three top-10 finishes, but was never in contention to win.

That run of quiet consistency continued until Keselowski’s best track – Talladega. In the second race of the Round of 12, Keselowski survived bedlam and made the most of a short field at the end to claim his fifth win at NASCAR’s largest oval.

The 2012 MENCS champ entered the Round of 8 declaring that Martinsville was a must-win for he and Team Penske, but he was moved out of the way in the race’s closing moments by Chase Elliott.

But in the end Keselowski didn’t need a win. He outran pseudo-teammate Ryan Blaney and benefitted from the rivalry-related crashes of Elliott and Denny Hamlin to sneak into the Championship 4.

Championship Odds: Low

You can never count Keselowski out, but he figures to be the underdog of the Cup Series Championship 4.

Keselowski has one championship to his name, but it came back in 2012 – before the elimination format’s existence.

Then he needed only a 15th-place run at Homestead to clinch the title. Now it’ll likely take a win, and Team Penske hasn’t quite looked up to the task of winning on intermediates through the second-half of the year.

Keselowski does have a strong recent history at Homestead. While he finished 35th at the track last season, he ran no worse than sixth in the three years before it. If he can manage that sort of strength on Sunday, he should have at least an outside shot at the title.

NASCAR XFINITY Series

The Grid: A Chevrolet quartet that combines two promising rookies with a pair of grizzled veterans making their second-consecutive Championship 4 appearance.

William Byron

(Photo: Brett Moist/NKP)

2017 Stats: Four wins, 11 top fives, three stage wins

Career Stats (One year): Same as above (Rookie)

Best Playoff Result (2016-Present): N/A (Rookie)

How He Got Here: With one of the best rookie seasons in the history of the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

Byron came to JR Motorsports and the XFINITY Series amid high praise after a breakout 2016 Truck Series campaign for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

There were reasons to doubt the move.. Byron was only 19, and while he was a K&N Pro Series East champion, he had just one full season with a NASCAR national series under his belt.

However, any who doubted were quickly proven wrong. Byron rose into the top three in the series standings in the second race of the year at Atlanta, and proceeded to stay there throughout the entire regular season.

The North Carolinian fell just short of his first XFINITY Series win at Michigan International Speedway in June, but followed it with back-to-back victories at Iowa Speedway and Daytona International Speedway. A month later he won again, this time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The last section of the regular season proved quiet for Byron, but the Hendrick Motorsports prospect picked back up during the playoffs. Save for a 16th-place run at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Byron finished no worse than ninth through the postseason’s opening two rounds.

In his return to Phoenix Raceway – the site of his unexpected elimination in last season’s Truck Series playoffs after a blown motor ended a dominant run prematurely – Byron claimed his fourth victory of the season to soar into Homestead with momentum.

Championship Odds: High

Choosing the favorite to take the XFINITY Series title essentially equates to a toss-up between three JR Motorsports drivers. While Byron might not have the experience of the other two, he’s proven the most capable of the trio at accomplishing the feat it takes to claim a title in Homestead – win.

Byron’s four victories this year are the most of any XFINITY Series regulars. He also has experience in winning at Homestead, though the win came in the Truck Series last season.

The inexperience could prove costly in the clutch moments of Saturday’s race, but Byron’s lack of experience has yet to hurt him thus far. In his final race before taking over the No. 24 in the Cup Series, expect Byron to come out swinging.

Justin Allgaier

(Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

2017 Stats: Two wins, 10 top fives, three stage wins

Career Stats (Eight years): Five wins, 52 top fives, two playoff appearances, two Championship 4 appearances

Best Playoff Result (2016-Present): Third (2016)

How He Got Here: With a resurgent season.

Allgaier arrived in 2017 after a heartbreaking end to 2016, when he lost the title to Daniel Suarez despite having arguably the best car of the Championship 4.

Based off of that, some might have thought Allgaier would suffer a slump in 2017.  Instead the Illinois native surged.

Allgaier earned his first XFINITY Series win in five years in the spring at Phoenix, securing a place in the postseason. The 31-year-old followed with another victory in the regular season finale at Chicagoland Speedway to cement himself as a championship favorite.

The playoffs were quiet for Allgaier, with struggles at Charlotte and Texas, but he made the most of his playoff point advantage to stay well clear of the championship cutoff and advance to Homestead for a second-straight year.

Championship Odds: High

It’s difficult to make predictions for Allgaier, given that he has completed only one previous season with JRM. But going into Homestead he looks every bit as a capable of winning a title as either of his JRM teammates.

Allgaier doesn’t have the most wins on the year, nor is he the most experience driver in the final four. Instead he finds himself somewhere in the middle, with a combination of speed and experience that should position him to be in the championship conversation throughout Saturday’s race.

If he has a car that looks as strong as last year’s, expect him to be in the conversation.

Elliott Sadler

(Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

2017 Stats: Zero wins, 12 top fives, five stage wins

Career Stats (20 years): 13 wins, 92 top fives, two playoff appearances, two Championship 4 appearances

Best Playoff Result (2016-Present): Second (2016)

How He Got Here: With consistency.

Sadler was the only winless JRM driver to advance to the Championship 4, but he did so as the top driver in the championship standings.

Make no mistake, Sadler proved capable of winning throughout the season, tallying 12 top fives and constantly running within sight of the leaders. He just couldn’t find the winning combination.

The Virginian easily made his way into the playoffs after leading the standings from the second week of the season at Atlanta. He continued to stay well clear of the cutoff throughout the postseason, falling within range only in the penultimate race of the year at Phoenix as his poor-handling car limited him to an 18th-place result.

But Sadler’s advantage was too high, helping him survive to chase a title once again with his second Championship 4 appearance.

Championship Odds: Good

Make no mistake, Sadler could potentially win any weekend if his team hits the right setup.

But the fact that he hasn’t all season is concerning.

Sadler’s been the most consistent driver in the XFINITY Series this season, doing more than enough to earn himself a trip to Championship 4 Media Day. But the championship isn’t decided on consistency anymore. Speed in the finale is what counts.

His experience and talent makes Sadler a serious threat going into Saturday’s race. But his team will have to execute at a level just above what they managed throughout the season if they hope to hoist up the championship trophy at race’s end.

Daniel Hemric

(Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

2017 Stats: Zero wins, seven top fives, two stage wins

Career Stats: Same as above (Rookie)

Best Playoff Result (2016-Present): N/A (Rookie)

How He Got Here: With a strong rookie season and a spirited Phoenix drive.

Hemric entered 2017 as one of the tour’s biggest wild cards. The 26-year-old was considered by most to be full of potential, as shown by two solid seasons in the Truck Series prior to the move up. But he’d yet to have a signature moment, and he was going to a Richard Childress Racing team that has struggled a bit with inconsistency as of late.

After 32 races the signature moment has yet to come, but once again the sparks of potential are apparent.

While his teammates struggled this season – Brandon Jones missed the playoffs, and Brendan Gaughan barely made them before making an early exit in the Round of 12 – Hemric excelled, spending the majority of the year in the top five in points.

He hasn’t won this year, but he’s been close. The North Carolinian earned seven top fives, including a runner-up result at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and a third-place run at Richmond Raceway.

With results like that, earning a playoff spot was easy for Hemric. Advancing through the rounds? Not so much.

The first round was simple. Three top 10s helped Hemric breeze through to the next test. But the Round of 8 proved challenging from the start when an untimely penalty left the rookie with an 18th-place run. A subpar result of 14th the following week left Hemric on the outside looking in at Phoenix – needing to pass three drivers to advance to the final round.

Impressively, Hemric managed just that. Brennan Poole crashed out early to give Hemric an outside chance. Matt Tifft struggled, leaving the door open for both Hemric and Cole Custer to strike, and Hemric bested Custer in a battle of rookie talents to steal a berth in the Championship 4.

Championship Odds: Low

Phoenix proved that Hemric has the talent, but can he deliver a championship result?

Likely not, though the possibility’s definitely there.

Hemric and RCR have been a noticeable step behind JRM this season, as evidenced by the latter team’s easy cruise to Miami in the standings. Hemric’s been as close as any to dethroning them, but even he’s typically fallen short of beating at least one member of the team’s top trio in each race.

Should RCR provide Hemric with a strong ride, there’s a chance he could drive himself into the conversation. Anything could happen as long as he’s in the picture, and Hemric’s proven capable of keeping himself close.

It might take an ugly result similar to Jimmie Johnson’s 2016 title run, but Hemric’s does have a chance. He’ll just have to win from the role of underdog.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

The Grid: Two previous champions, three former Championship 4 contenders and a rookie that hopes to surprise the field in his organization’s swan song.

Christopher Bell

(Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

2017 Stats: Five wins, 14 top fives, nine stage wins

Career Stats (Three years): Seven wins, 25 top fives, one playoff appearance, two Championship 4 appearances

Best Playoff Result (2016-Present): Third (2016)

How He Got Here: With a breakout season.

After a partial 2015 run and a good-if-not-great 2016 season, Bell finally experienced his coming of age in his second full Truck Series tour.

Piloting the strong No. 4 KBM Toyota, Bell took just two weeks to make his way to victory lane at Atlanta. Another victory followed five races later at Texas, and two more came in the ensuing five events at Kentucky Speedway and Pocono.

Bell was the winningest Truck Series driver in the regular season, giving himself a massive playoff point advantage on the rest of the field when the postseason arrived.

He didn’t need that advantage in the opening Round of 8, maneuvering his machine to a win in the playoff opener at New Hampshire. But the advantage came into play in the Round of 6, when Bell tallied three top 10s to advance comfortably to his second-straight Championship 4.

Championship Odds: High

Last season Bell entered the Championship 4 as an underdog.

This year, he might just be the favorite.

Bell and KBM have been strong all season, and their advantage has only grown as the playoffs have gone on. The duo of Bell and Noah Gragson dominated just last weekend at Phoenix before contact between teammates left both drivers scrambling and out of contention.

He might not be a veteran like a few of his fellow contenders, but Bell has proven capable of delivering a victory when he’s supplied with a machine up to the task this season. Assuming his KBM team can give him a strong ride at Homestead, he has to be considered one of the biggest threats to take home the title.

Johnny Sauter

(Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

2017 Stats: Four wins, 12 top fives, eight stage wins

Career Stats: 2016 NCWTS champion, 17 wins, 87 top fives, two playoff appearances, two Championship 4 appearances

Best Playoff Result (2016-Present): First (2016)

How He Got Here: By surging when it counts for the second-straight year.

Sauter entered 2017 still riding the momentum of a 2016 championship surge. After a 15th-place run at Daytona, the 39-year-old earned a third-place finish, three runner-up runs and, finally, a win at Dover International Speedway in a five-race stint.

His playoff berth guaranteed, Sauter spent the summer months in constant contention for a victory, though the wins didn’t come. The Wisconsinite finally returned to victory lane just before the playoffs arrived at Chicagoland, giving himself momentum for a postseason push.

Much like last season, Sauter then proceeded to find his rhythm.

The veteran didn’t manage a win in the Round of 8, but did enough to survive and advance. He then claimed two races in the Round of 6 for the second-consecutive season, tallying victories in the previous two races at Texas and Phoenix.

Sauter needs to manage just one more feat to repeat his title run from a year ago – a championship-clinching performance at Homestead…

Championship Odds: High

…And there’s a good chance he could get it done.

Sauter has been one of the best drivers in the Truck Series all season, leading 455 laps and scoring four wins as he defends his first NASCAR championship. He’s statistically been better than last season, and that year resulted in a title.

For Sauter it all comes down to Homestead. His GMS Racing team appeared to be behind KBM for most of the year on intermediates, but they won last time out in Texas.

It might take a better run than the third-place result that clinched the title for Sauter last year to hoist the trophy this season, but the veteran seems up to the task.

Matt Crafton

(Photo: Brett Moist/NKP)

2017 Stats: One win, five top fives, three stage wins

Career Stats: Two-time NCWTS champion (2013, ’14), 14 wins, 102 top fives, two playoff appearances, two Championship 4 appearances.

Best Playoff Result (2016-Present): Third (2016)

How He Got Here: In the most peculiar of ways.

Crafton isn’t an expert on dirt. In fact, he ran a dirt late model this year in an attempt to better his dirt prowess.

In the end, it may have made the difference for his season.

A two-time Truck Series champion, Crafton earned his trip to the playoffs this year with an unexpected win at Eldora Speedway – NASCAR’s lone dirt track.

The result came seemingly out of nowhere, with Crafton besting a bevy of dirt aces including Bell, Stewart Friesen, Bobby Pierce and Rico Abreu. It also added a highlight to what was otherwise an unusually quiet year for the 41-year-old.

After earning multiple wins in each of the past three years, Crafton’s Eldora triumph has been his lone Truck Series victory in 2017. He entered the playoffs vulnerable, sitting mid-pack on playoff points and seemingly without the speed needed to win his way through the rounds.

But while Crafton might not have shown winning speed, the veteran managed to advance with consistency. Three finishes in the back half of the top 10 proved to be enough in the Round of 8, and a second-place run at Martinsville was enough to keep Crafton afloat even after a crash out in 21st at Phoenix.

Championship Odds: Low

Crafton’s consistency was enough to get him to the Championship 4. But will it work in the championship finale?

Unlikely.

Crafton enters Homestead with more experience than anyone else in the Truck Series, having competed full-time on the tour since 2001. He’ll likely need to lean on that experience if he hopes to claim his third championship, as his team hasn’t shown the outright speed necessary to win.

Austin Cindric

(Photo: Barry Cantrell/NKP)

2017 Stats: One win, seven top fives, one stage win.

Career Stats (Three years): Same as above.

Best Playoff Result (2016-Present): N/A (Rookie)

How He Got Here: Amid controversy.

Cindric joined Brad Keselowski Racing full-time alongside fellow rookie Chase Briscoe, but while he’s the member of the duo that made the Championship 4, it was Briscoe that carried the the team for most of the season.

Briscoe started off strong and stayed consistent to cruise into the playoffs on points. By comparison Cindric struggled early, scoring only two top 10s in the opening eight races and dropping into a playoff hole too deep to climb out of without a win.

The 19-year-old’s growth was apparent over the summer. After struggling to get a top 10 early in the year, Cindric became a constant presence in the top 10 over the second half of the season, scoring 13 top 10s in the 14 races preceding Homestead. The Ohioan even contended for a win at Michigan, though the effort ultimately fell through.

He was running well enough to make a playoff run, but Cindric needed a victory to make the postseason. It was in his search for that win that the controversy arose.

After dominating much of the day in the Truck Series’ lone road-course race at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, Cindric found himself clawing his way back through the field after suffering pit road issues. The rookie’s fight culminated on the final lap, when he found himself behind leader and Daytona winner Kaz Grala.

In need of a victory, Cindric applied the bumper.

His postseason berth was set, though his competitors weren’t happy.

Once the playoffs arrived, Cindric’s consistency proved enough to elevate him into the Round of 6. But in the cutoff race at Phoenix he spent most of the night trailing Ben Rhodes for what would become the final spot.

It wasn’t until a late set of pit stops that Cindric found himself behind Rhodes with a chance to make something happen.

Naturally, he did.

Cindric dove low. Rhodes blocked. Cindric didn’t back out, and Rhodes ended up in the wall.

It wasn’t pretty, though Cindric wasn’t completely at fault this time, and it was controversial. But once again, Cindric had done what he needed to do in order to survive and advance.

Championship Odds: Low

Forget that Cindric likely has enemies in Rhodes and Crafton – who Rhodes crashed into after the contact at Phoenix. Throw out the fact that Grala could conceivably play him back, too, though it’s unlikely.

Even without all of that, Cindric’s likely a long shot.

The rookie’s done everything he can to make his way into, and through, the playoffs. But now the time has come when he’ll need to surge above the tour’s best with a clutch performance in order to hoist up the championship trophy.

The feat’s possible, but unlikely.

Cindric has ran strong over the second half of the season, and he nearly won just two weeks ago in Texas. But besting Bell, Sauter and Crafton with a BKR Ford that’s managed just one win in the organization’s final season won’t be easy.

This isn’t the first time Cindric’s been an underdog this year, and he’s managed to prove his doubters wrong thus far. But delivering a championship drive at Homestead should prove to be the toughest task yet.

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