Wednesday’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship Media Day in suburban Miami marked the official kickoff for arguably the biggest race weekend not only of 2014, but also potentially in NASCAR history.
After 35 weeks of waiting, including a nine-race playoff run-up that saw 12 of the original 16 drivers that qualified for the Chase eliminated in one of the first three rounds, the stage is set for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
While the biggest amount of attention is in South Florida, the excitement level spans the country, from Miami to Los Angeles, from New York to Dallas and everywhere in-between.
Barring any weather issues, what will take place on late Sunday afternoon when the green flag drops will be history in the making.
While we’ve had 65 prior NASCAR Grand National and Cup championships decided over the years, we’ve never reached this kind of level, where only four drivers will battle each other – as well as 39 other drivers who may become rolling roadblocks or impediments – for the sport’s biggest prize.
On top of it all, no matter which of the four finalists – Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman – winds up winning the crown, it will be a first-ever Cup championship for the victor.
The finale is reaching the kind of crescendo NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France predicted, with increased TV ratings and at-track attendance.
Last Sunday’s penultimate race at Phoenix was sold out nearly a week before the green flag fell.
This Sunday’s championship race is a near-sellout for the first time in several years.
While there is still some criticism by a minority number of fans, it appears the majority have not only bought into the new format, but are excited to see how it ultimately plays out Sunday.
Granted, it’s not likely NASCAR expected that the majority of its biggest stars would not be eliminated prior to the biggest race of the season, drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., four-time champ Jeff Gordon, six-time and defending champ Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and others.
But at the same time, the four-driver field we see for Sunday’s race is about as diverse as you can find.
Harvick and Newman are the wily veterans who have waited 13 and 12 years respectively to get a crack at their first-ever title.
Then there’s Denny Hamlin, who is the only one of the four who has ever won at Homestead-Miami Speedway before – in fact, he’s won twice.
And then there’s the still young and precocious Joey Logano, who not only has enjoyed a breakout season in 2014, he’s lived up to all the predictions and hype bestowed upon him by a number of big names such as Mark Martin.
There’s also a revenge or redemption factor for several of the four drivers and their teams.
Hamlin is looking to avenge how he came apart in the heat of the 2010 championship battle, forcing him to eventually see a sports psychologist to deal with the loss.
Hamlin’s crew chief, Darian Grubb, is also likely looking to prove Stewart-Haas Racing wrong for releasing him even after he led Tony Stewart to five Chase wins and the eventual championship in 2011.
Harvick is looking to do with SHR what he ultimately decided wasn’t possible at his former team residence, Richard Childress Racing, for the previous 13 seasons.
And in an ironic twist, Newman is likely looking to show SHR the wrongness of its ways when it let him go last season, only to be replaced by Kurt Busch.
To his credit, even though Newman struggled at times during this year’s regular season, he’s become the Cinderella of the Chase. And in another irony, Newman could very well do for RCR what Harvick felt he’d never be able to accomplish if he stayed with the organization: to win a championship.
Logano has his own revenge factor: he was released after the 2012 season by Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for the incoming Matt Kenseth.
And so who is in this year’s final round? Kenseth was eliminated at Phoenix, but not Logano.
Fortunately for Logano, after being released by JGR, he landed at Penske Racing, which has turned him into a championship contender after being little more than an afterthought during his four-season tenure at JGR.
All four drivers have different ways of getting ready for and planning how to attack in Sunday’s race. Check out their thoughts from Wednesday’s Chase Media Day:
MORE: Calm before the storm: Chase finalists ready for Homestead
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