NASCAR’s championship to be decided by race within a race

Jeff Gordon (right) won the pole for the EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2014.
Jeff Gordon (right) won the pole for the EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2014. AP

The four drivers competing for NASCAR’s Chase championship will have plenty to think about during Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

For starters, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. will mostly be tuned in to the whereabouts of the other three during the Ford EcoBoost 400. That’s natural, because the highest finisher among them will walk away with the championship. They’ll be getting constant input from their crew chiefs and spotters about where they stand relative to the other three during the race.

“You feel like to win the championship, you’re probably going to have to win this race,” Truex said during a news conference Thursday. “If you’re doing what you need to do, you’re pretty much going to know where (the others) are at. I could see a lot of scenarios in my head where the four of us are running in the top five a lot of that race. You’ll know if you’re ahead of them, and that’s where you’ll want to be.”

Harvick is the only driver of the four to have made it this far in pursuit of this version of NASCAR’s championship (Gordon’s four titles came before the Chase was instituted in 2004). Harvick won the championship in 2014, winning at Homestead ahead of Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

“Going through this last year, all four of us raced against each other pretty much the whole race,” said Harvick. “Everybody raced hard and did everything that they wanted to do as far as pass each other and race, because in the end, I mean, if it’s the last lap, I mean, what are the odds of it coming down to that? You have to get to that point, and how you race each other all day – we raced hard, but in the end, it was clean, and everybody did what they had to do.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same way this year where you have to race up front and race for a win and do all the things that happened last year.”

Sportsmanship and NASCAR’s “driver’s code” have been in the spotlight during this season’s Chase. Harvick at Talladega (in which he didn’t move his slowing car out of the way during a late caution to maintain his position), and Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth going after each other at Kansas and Martinsville have been among the postseason’s main story lines.

“I don’t think anyone is just going to go out there and wreck someone to try to get the championship, at least that’s not the way I would do it,” said Truex. “It really doesn’t change from the way I race every week. We’re going to put our best effort out there on the racetrack. We’re going to race as hard as we can, and hopefully we don’t have to worry about crossing that line.

“It doesn’t really change from the way I’ve raced my whole career and the way I’ve raced every week. You know, if it comes down to a little bit of pushing and shoving at the end for the win, then it just depends on what I feel like the other guys are willing to put on the line.”

Gordon, who will retire after this season, expects Sunday’s race competitive and clean.

“I don’t think that any of us currently have any beefs among one another, and we have a lot of respect for one another,” he said. “The ultimate is that you’re running second and you have to pass one of these guys on the final lap, and it’s some bold and exciting move but a clean move, maybe just a little fender rub or something like that, that gets you the win. To me that’s the ultimate. That’s how everybody wishes and hopes that they could do it.”

But Gordon acknowledges there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed.

“If you put the bumper to them and they spin, they crash, even if you crossed the line first, that’s going to weigh on you a little bit,” said Gordon. “Yeah, you might be the champion, but it’s still going to have sort of a shadow over it.

“If you ask us right now what we’d be willing to do, it’s we want to go do it in a clean way. But you don’t know how you’re going to react on that last lap when you’ve had it in sight, and you don’t know what’s going to go on throughout the whole race that may create an opportunity.”

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