Exceptional youth vs. veteran experience.
That’s what it comes down to in MotorSportsTalk’s staff predictions of who will emerge as the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
Here’s a hint of our respective mindsets: Even though whoever wins will be a first-time champ, could it be Stewart-Haas Racing’s second Sprint Cup championship in four seasons or Penske Racing’s second title in three seasons?
My MST colleagues Tony DiZinno and Chris Estrada are going with youth in their picks for who will claim the championship, while yours truly is going old school, choosing experience and freaky fastness, so to speak.
Who will ultimately be right – or will all three of us wind up being wrong? We’ll know when the checkered flag falls around 6:30 pm ET.
Here’s how the MST team expects Sunday’s championship-deciding race will play out:
Tony DiZinno — Champion: Joey Logano
Reasoning: Kevin Harvick can play his mind games, Denny Hamlin can draw on how to improve from his 2010 title miss and Ryan Newman can rely on his underdog status to give themselves a shot. But they all have their flaws.
Harvick’s pit crew has been an issue all season and although the swapped crew has been better in the Chase, can we feel secure on SHR fielding perfect pit stops all day when it matters most?
Does either Hamlin or Newman have the pace or tenacity to overcome sluggish, under-the-radar Chases?
So it’s Logano, who together with Team Penske and crew chief Todd Gordon, have been fantastic on 1.5-mile tracks, and who seems poised to be the driver who clinches his first Cup title on Sunday.
It’s been a dream season and a consistently strong season for the driver of the 22 car. I think he brings it home.
Christopher Estrada – Champion: Joey Logano
Chris counts down the four finalists to the eventual champ.
4th – Ryan Newman: The clock strikes midnight for the Cinderella team of the Chase. Newman and the No. 31 team deserve all the credit in the world for leaving the “winning is everything” hype in tatters during this Chase, but I’m expecting all of the Championship 4 to be toward the front on Sunday – and I can’t see Newman leading the pack.
3rd – Denny Hamlin: Unlike his first championship encounter in 2010, Hamlin’s going into Sunday much more loose and at ease. That’s certainly a good sign in a pressure-packed situation like this one, but like Newman, I can’t trust him to win on speed over the 22 and the 4. He’s going to need one of them to stumble to have a shot at the crown.
2nd – Kevin Harvick: The guy carrying the most pressure is Harvick, who has been lights-out fast in 2014. So far in the Chase, his team has largely avoided the mechanical failures and pit road gaffes that plagued them in the regular season. Everything seems primed for Harvick to finally nail down his first Cup title, but with Logano in the 22, he’s met his match. As a veteran, Harvick’s surely got some tricks up his sleeve. … But will he have to use them all?
1st – Joey Logano: For Logano, it’s time to show the world — and in particular, Harvick, a guy that gave Logano some grief during his early days — that he can be a champion. There have been some down times, but the man nicknamed “Sliced Bread” is now tougher, smarter, and faster than he’s ever been. There will surely be more than a few moments that completely change the race on Sunday, but the new Logano can take them in stride — and I believe that will be a key reason why he’ll lift the Cup.
Jerry Bonkowski – Champion: Kevin Harvick
To me, there is no tougher a competitor in this winner-take-all race than Harvick.
He’s been chasing the dream of a Sprint Cup championship for 14 seasons. It took guts for him to leave his home for the first 13 seasons, Richard Childress Racing, and move to another organization that he felt would give him a better chance at a title, namely, Stewart-Haas Racing.
Now that he has his best shot to date for the championship, Harvick’s not going to let it slip through his hands.
For Harvick, the strategy is simple: Get to the front as quick as he can and hold on the rest of the way, much like he did last week en route to victory at Phoenix and a resulting automatic berth in the Chase finale.
If Harvick falls short, I’d like to see Newman win in Cinderella-like fashion, maybe even win his first race of the season to clinch the championship. As for Logano and Hamlin, they’ll be formidable competitors, but unless something happens to Harvick or Newman in the race, I just don’t see the two young drivers doing it.
This one goes to one of the old guys, who will take the championship in the old school way.
Follow me at @Jerry Bonkowski