Final 4 drivers face off for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship
MIAMI, FL (WSFA) - For 10 months, NASCAR fans have wondered who would be the final four drivers to race for the NASCAR Championship at Homestead in Miami in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Over the last nine weeks of the Chase, the field of 16 contenders has been cut to four. This year's championship race features defending champion Kevin Harvick and three unexpected challengers in Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. The four drivers will face off Sunday afternoon in the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Miami.
NASCAR's new playoff format
In January of 2014, NASCAR announced they changed the rules for the postseason, dubbed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. In previous years, the champion was determined solely by a points system. NASCAR hoped these changes would encourage drivers to race harder for a win instead of racing merely for points.
Starting last season the Chase was structured in a four-round playoff format. Sixteen drivers qualify for the Chase either by winning a race or by points. There are three rounds of races dubbed the Challenger, Contender and Eliminator. After each round, the four drivers with the fewest number of points are eliminated. A win automatically advances a driver to the next round.
In the final round the four drivers remaining race for the best finish at NASCAR's finale at Homestead in Miami. The driver with the highest finish would be crowned the champion of NASCAR, regardless of points.
In the second year of NASCAR's new playoff format, almost every race has had its share of drama and intrigue.
The Challenger Round: Chicagoland, New Hampshire, Dover
In the first round of the playoff, called the Challenger Round, two Joe Gibbs teammates easily won the first two races. Denny Hamlin, who was hampered by a torn ACL, won at Chicagoland. A week later, Matt Kenseth won his fifth race of the season at New Hampshire.
Kevin Harvick, who needed to win to advance to the next round, dominated almost every lap at Dover to advance to the next round.
The Contender Round: Charlotte, Kansas, Talladega
Joey Logano made a strong statement in the Contender Round, becoming the first driver to sweep all three races in a single round in the new playoff system
With his three straight victories, Logano became the wins leader of 2015 with six trips to victory lane. Logano also became the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1994 to win three consecutive races in the Chase.
In the second race of the Contender Round at Kansas, Matt Kenseth was in the lead for most of the race, but was being pushed hard by Logano in the final laps of the race. With only five laps remaining, Logano clipped Kenseth's car, sending Kenseth helplessly spinning toward the infield. The resulting wreck knocked Kenseth out of race and eventually led to his elimination from the Chase.
The Eliminator Round: Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix
In the first race of the Eliminator Round at Martinsville, Kenseth seemed to intentionally wreck Logano, who had led most of the race. The wreck knocked Logano out of the race and led to Jeff Gordon's first win of the season.
Coming into the Eliminator Round, Logano was one of the favorites to make the final four. However, the wreck with Kenseth at Martinsville put Logano several points behind the cutline. Logano was not able to secure a victory in the next two races, eliminating him from contention.
Jimmie Johnson won at Texas, becoming the first non-Chase driver to win a race in the Chase. Chase driver Brad Keslowski, who was leading most of the race, came within five laps of a victory. However, Johnson caught then past Keslowski with three laps remaining stealing the race at Texas. Keslowski eventually became one of the four drivers cut from the Chase after the Eliminator Round.
In the final event of the Eliminator Round at Phoenix, the race was called early due to rain. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was leading when the red flag waved, was declared the winner. This hurt Carl Edwards, who was only five points below the cutline after Phoenix. The early finish at Phoenix also hurt Joey Logano, who had moved up to third place with a chance to win the race.
The Final Four: Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick's journey to the Chase began with a win at Las Vegas in the third race of the year. The defending champion won the very next race at Phoenix. After his two consecutive wins, Harvick would not score another until the Chase.
In the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland, Harvick wrecked early, putting him several points behind the cutline. In the next race at New Hampshire, he was only a few laps from winning, but ran out of gas, putting him in a position of needing nothing less than a win at Dover to advance to the Chase.
Harvick responded with a dominating win at Dover. He led 355 laps of the 400 lap race, cruising into the Challenger Round.
At Talladega Harvick again was in danger of missing the four driver cut in the Contender Round. On the last restart, he started a chain reaction, causing a controversial wreck that forced the race to end on the only green-white-checkered attempt. Harvick had just enough points to qualify for the Eliminator Round.
Harvick was able to advance on points in the final Eliminator Round, easily making it into the final four on points.
The Final Four: Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. is having the best year of his career. Coming into 2015 Truex only posted two wins in his eleven years in NASCAR's highest circuit. Truex began the year strong, finishing in the top ten in 13 of the first 14 events, including at a win at Pocono. It was his first Sprint Cup win since 2013.
Despite not winning a race since, Truex has been one of the more consistent drivers throughout all three rounds of the Chase. He has finished in the top 15 in all nine races of the Chase.
Truex was in danger of missing the cut coming into Phoenix, being only six points ahead of Carl Edwards. Edwards closed the gap by a point, but the early finish at Phoenix sealed Truex's place among the final four.
The Final Four: Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch has had the most uphill battle of all the final four contenders. During NASCAR's opening weekend, Busch suffered a broken right leg and left foot after a devastating wreck in the Xfinity Series race at Daytona. Busch missed the first eleven races of the season.
NASCAR allowed Busch an opportunity to advance into the Chase playoff if he both won a race and qualified in the top 30 in points.
In Busch's fifth race since his comeback at Charlotte, he won NASCAR's first road course race of the season at Sonoma. Busch went on to win three consecutive races at Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Indianapolis. Busch has not won since, but has finished in the top ten in ten of the last 15 races, easily making his way into the top 30, and qualifying on points.
Like Truex, Busch has been consistent during the Chase, finishing outside the top 15 only twice. He cruised to a spot in the final four with three top five finishes in the Eliminator Round.
The Final Four: Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon will have a chance to score a walk off championship in the final race of his 23-year career. In January, Gordon announced 2015 would be his last full time season in NASCAR.
Gordon began with rough start to the season. He finished outside of the top ten in half of the first 20 races. However, Gordon improved over the course of the year, and became one of the few drivers to qualify for the Chase on points.
He continued to run just well enough to advance through the first two rounds of the Chase.
In the first event in the Eliminator Round at Martinsville, Gordon scored his first win since 2014, thanks in part to the wreck involving Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth.
Gordon is the only driver to make the final four with a win in the Eliminator Round, but is also the only driver still in the Chase without regular season victory.
The Finale at Homestead
The final race of the NASCAR season will be the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The driver with the highest finish among the final four will be declared the winner of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Kevin Harvick won last year's race at Homestead to become the first champion of the new playoff format. Jeff Gordon is the only other driver among the final four to win at Homestead.
The Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead in Miami will start Sunday at 3 p.m. EST on NBC.
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