If only things were so simple every season.
This time last year, the week before NASCAR’s Cup Series championship race at Homestead, there was near-consensus. Almost all the prediction articles flooding the Internet pointed to the dominant Martin Truex Jr. and prescribed him his first championship trophy.
That, based on his overwhelming dominance, made complete sense.
It isn’t nearly that clear-cut this time around.
Truex is back in the fold for a second consecutive season in hopes of defending his title, but he’s far from the runaway favorite he was a year ago. In fact, you could even say he’s something of an underdog this year.
Truthfully, last season’s Championship 4 was lopsided. There was Truex, and then everyone else.
Kyle Busch made for something of a challenge over the last 10 laps of the finale, but it was really all Truex, all day.
Simple, clean-cut, as expected. And the exact opposite of what we have now.
Three of last season’s Championship 4 — Truex, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick — return, with Joey Logano replacing Kurt Busch in the fourth spot.
Harvick and Kyle Busch have been the “best” drivers this season. In 35 races, each won eight times. They split the past two playoff victories, at Texas and Phoenix.
Each has more than 20 top-five finishes, and their runner-up finishes — Busch has five, Harvick four — speak to their week-in, week-out consistency.
Then there’s Truex, the feel-good story from last year and reigning champion. He’s again the clear emotional draw, running his final race at Furniture Row Racing before the team shutters and he moves to join Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing next year.
Then there is Logano, making his return to the championship race after missing the playoffs entirely last season. He needed a controversial bump-and run pass of Truex at Martinsville to get here, but now that he is, anything can happen.
So, what’s the prediction this year?
Well, it’s a bit more complicated than picking Truex was last season, so here goes:
The driver who should win the championship, won’t.
Kyle Busch should win at Homestead ... but it’ll be Harvick who hoists his second trophy.
Statistically, Harvick has the best numbers this season. He has as many victories and poles as Busch, and one more top-five and one more top-10. He has finished outside of the top 30 just four times, proving his consistency even further.
And, after winning at Texas (a victory later discounted because of a penalty) and finishing fourth at Phoenix, he has as much momentum as any of the Championship 4.
But those numbers are deceiving. The driver who should win the championship this weekend, who most deserves it, is Busch.
Simply put, Busch has been the best pure racer this year. He has come back from early-lap wrecks to contend. He has dominated full races. He has made last-second moves to steal victories at the finish line.
More than anything you could glean from numbers, Busch has been the most adaptable, flexible, and interesting driver for large swaths of this season.
But, unfortunately for Busch, he has also developed a penchant for finishing close behind Harvick.
He did that at Las Vegas, Phoenix, Chicago, and Loudon, N.H.
NASCAR fans don’t always love Busch’s bristly personality, but no matter how you feel about the guy, you have to respect his talent.
A second championship would elevate Truex, Busch, or Harvick to a different level of racing history, placing them on par with Buck Baker and Ned Jarrett in NASCAR lore. All three are already likely Hall of Famers. If Logano wins his first title, he should be one, too.
But this season, the driver who most deserves to win, won’t.
Kyle Busch should be your 2018 NASCAR Cup Series champion.
But instead, on Sunday, everyone will congratulate Kevin Harvick.
This week’s NASCAR race at Homestead: What you need to know.
Race: NASCAR Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400.
Distance: 267 laps, or 400.5 miles.
Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway, a 1.5-mile asphalt oval in Homestead, Fla.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Martin Truex Jr.
Also this week: Ford EcoBoost 300, Xfinity Series, Homestead-Miami Speedway, 3:30 p.m., Saturday, NBCSN.
Worth mentioning: Truex’s victory at Homestead last fall earned him his first Cup Series championship. No driver has repeated as champion since Jimmie Johnson won five straight titles from 2006-2010.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not: Championship 4 Edition
Kyle Busch: His victory Sunday at Phoenix gave him eight this season, tied with Harvick for most in the sport. But a second championship ring would catapult Busch into the conversation of NASCAR’s best-ever drivers.
Kevin Harvick: Despite having his automatic berth to Homestead repealed after a penalty discounted his Texas win, Harvick is back in the championship for another year and has as good a shot as anyone to win it all.
Martin Truex Jr.: He may be the defending champ, but unless he can return to his mid-season peak performance, Truex might be handing off the title belt come Sunday night.
Joey Logano: He’s the clear underdog of the four championship contenders, and while he raced well at Texas, his 37th-place finish at Phoenix doesn’t provide much momentum.