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ANDERS: Title fight, goodbyes mark Homestead

NASCAR Homestead Auto Racing
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Dale Earnhardt Jr., right, gives autographs in the garage area during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

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By JORDAN ANDERS
The Daily Reflector

Friday, November 17, 2017

It’s hard to remember a season finale that had quite as many storylines going in as Sunday’s final race at Homestead-Miami does.

Two NASCAR champions will hang it up on a day when the sport crowns its 2017 champion, and one of the sport’s marquee names announced Friday that she, too, will be making an exit from NASCAR soon.

The main focus, of course, will be on the Championship 4, three of whom already have a title in NASCAR’s premier series. One of them, or a brand new champion, will be the first to claim that cool looking new Monster Energy Cup Series trophy that has all the race tracks on it. The more I look at that thing, the more I like it.

The question is, who will hoist it at day’s end?

  • Martin Truex Jr. is the lone contender without a Cup championship to his credit. He’s been so much faster than everyone at the 1.5-mile tracks this year that I ran out of superlatives for it. He and the No. 78 team will need one more such performance if they want to be champs.
  • A title for Kyle Busch would help silence some of the people who still take umbrage with the fact he didn’t run the full season when he won his first one in 2015. He hasn’t been as consistently fast as Truex, but he did win here two years ago to claim that crown in style.
  • Kevin Harvick did the same the year prior, winning the race to claim the championship in 2014 in the first year of this Championship 4 format. The No. 4 team has been a little off all year as Stewart-Haas Racing shifted to Ford, but the fact he ran Truex down and passed him for the win at Texas to get here is a pretty big boost.
  • Brad Keselowski is the only one of the three former champs who won his title before this format. Keselowski might be the biggest underdog here in terms of consistent speed, but he and crew chief Paul Wolfe have championship pedigree that you can’t discount.

Whichever driver wins will certainly have earned it, and champions under this format are a perfect 3-for-3 in winning the race to claim the title. None of those four can afford to show up today and think they can run in the top-5 and win the title. It’s likely the winner will have to take the checkered flag as well.

Kenseth’s win: It is unlikely the winner — except for one I’ll get to soon — will have as emotional a story as last week’s did.

Matt Kenseth announced at Texas he won’t be in a car in 2018, then ran down Chase Elliott and grabbed what will likely stand as the final win of his career at Phoenix, prompting an emotional post-race from the usually stoic driver.

I’ve written already about what a bummer it is to see a Hall of Fame talent be forced out of the sport before his competitive days are done, but last week was certainly fun to see him get one last win. The fact he’s driving a throwback paint scheme to the one he entered the Cup Series with is pretty symbolic of his future, but his run in NASCAR was a great one.

Speaking of guys going out in their former paint schemes...

Junior’s goodbye: This is the day, and I don’t think anyone knows what it’s going to be like to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. say goodbye to racing at the Cup level.

Losing Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart to retirement in the last two seasons was a blow to NASCAR’s star power, but neither of them had the profile or popularity of Earnhardt. Unlike Kenseth’s, Junior’s has been publicly acknowledged for months, but that’s not going to make today any easier for millions of fans — myself included — who have followed him since his days in the red Budweiser-sponsored No. 8 car.

That car was the inspiration for his paint scheme this weekend, which means he and Kenseth, who entered the sport together in 2000, will leave in 2017 driving cars that look just like the ones they burst onto the scene with nearly two decades ago. That’s extremely cool.

Danica out: Danica Patrick threw her name into the retirement ring Friday with her announcement that she will run the Daytona 500 next year, then end her driving career after returning to her open-wheel roots for the Indianapolis 500 in May.

Her announcement wasn’t supremely surprising seeing as how everyone knew she was out of the No. 10 car after today, but her’s is yet another loss for the sport in the crucial realm of female fandom. Patrick has been a trailblazer her entire career, even if the results didn’t come along with that, and her profile will be a big one for the sport to replace.

Seeing her, along with Earnhardt and Kenseth, hang it up almost casts a bit of a pall over Sunday’s finale. There’s a definite feeling of the end of a big chapter in the sport’s history, but with a new champion being crowned and plenty of bright, young faces to step in and replace them, the sport appears set to move on without them.

PREDICTION

I have reservation here about taking Truex, only because he and that team have not produced in a situation as pressure-packed as this. Then again, no team has ever been as good at tracks like Homestead as this one has this year, and I think pure speed is enough to propel the No. 78 to its first title. PICK: Martin Truex Jr. (race and championship)

Contact Jordan Anders at janders@reflector.com, 252-329-9594 and follow @ReflectorJordan on Twitter.

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