A week before they were to race for the NASCAR Sprint Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch sat side-by-side at the dais in the Phoenix International Raceway media center and began the bickering that invariably accompanies the battle for the series title.
“I think my stats at Homestead show that I’m the favorite, right?” Johnson said facetiously.
“I think my results from last year show that I’m the favorite, right?” Busch retorted.
Busch goes to Homestead as the defending champion, having overcome a broken leg and foot that caused him to miss the first 11 races of the 2015 season. With the elimination of Kevin Harvick in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix, Busch is the only Championship 4 contender who has won a title under the 16-driver Chase format introduced by NASCAR in 2014.
Johnson, on the other hand, is a six-time champion, and having won at Martinsville in the first race of the Chase’s Round of 8, he and crew chief Chad Knaus will have had three weeks to prepare for the season finale.
“In a couple weeks we didn't have a chance to build a new car, but we've got some stuff in the pipeline and a couple cars to choose from,” Johnson said of his preparations for Sunday’s race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). “Yes, we have had the luxury of a few weeks of time, but a lot of these decisions are made so far in advance—which cars, and getting them approved through NASCAR—that the advantage doesn't come there.
“I think it's more in preparation, digging through notes, watching videos, just being prepared. I think that's where a small advantage may come from, and we'll see if we can take advantage of that.”
Busch, on the other hand, didn’t know he’d have a chance to defend his title until the final lap of the second overtime at Phoenix, where he ran second to fellow Championship 4 contender Joey Logano.
To say Busch made the final four by the skin of his teeth is an understatement. Throughout most of Sunday’s race, he ran outside the top 10, and it wasn’t until he gained track position through a series of banzai moves on a late restart that Busch’s car came to life.
Tempering Busch’s satisfaction at qualifying for the Championship 4 was ambivalence about a late wreck that involving Busch, Alex Bowman and then-race-leader Matt Kenseth (Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate) that knocked Kenseth out of the championship picture.
“That was a really ugly race for us,” Busch said. “We ran pretty bad all day, and the closer we got to the front the better we got, but that still doesn’t ... it was a great finish for us but we hoped it could be a little better than that.”
Despite Kenseth’s unceremonious exit, Busch is the only driver with a teammate in the Championship 4. After a hard crash at Martinsville, Carl Edwards resurrected his championship hopes with a victory in the rain-shortened AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
And the prospect of teammates racing each other for a title provided another opening for Johnson, who has faced that problem on multiple occasions at Hendrick Motorsports.
“It sucks,” Johnson told Busch. “You’re going to have a miserable time down there.”
But who really has an edge? A six-time champion, a defending champion, or a pair of drivers hungry for a first championship?
Here’s a primer on the Championship 4:
The six-time champion has history riding with him. Another title and he’ll tie icons Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the series record.
The upside: Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates have found excellent speed of late. Johnson has won a race in each of the last two rounds of the Chase, and three of his four victories this season have come on downforce tracks (Atlanta, Fontana, Charlotte). Johnson also has crew chief Chad Knaus, who has collaborated with his driver on each of his six titles.
The downside: Johnson’s record at Homestead is less than impressive. It’s one of four active Sprint Cup tracks where he has never won, the others being Kentucky, Chicagoland and Watkins Glen. Though Johnson has two Homestead poles, his average starting position there is 15.3, and his average finish 14.1. Johnson has led a mere 99 laps at the 1.5-mile speedway, fewest at any active track other than the Glen, where he has led 17 circuits. In his six championship seasons, Johnson didn’t have to win at Homestead. To get a seventh title, he’ll probably have to finish first.
Other than Johnson, who won five straight championships from 2006 through 2010, Busch would be the first driver to defend a title successfully since Jeff Gordon in 1997-1998.
The upside: In terms of raw talent and the ability to see and anticipate what is unfolding on the track in front of him, Busch has no peer. He also has the experience of coming to Homestead under the current elimination Chase format and winning the race to win the title. Busch is acutely aware of what he’s feeling in his car and is better than any of the other Championship 4 competitors at suggesting ways to improve it.
The downside: Last year’s victory notwithstanding, Busch has the worst career average finish at Homestead of any of the Championship 4 contenders—21.1. In 11 starts at the 1.5-mile track, Busch has just one other top five (fourth in 2012) and has completed just 2,675 of a possible 2,938 laps (91 percent).
With a victory at Phoenix on Sunday, Joey Logano returns to the Championship 4 after a year’s hiatus. A series-best seven of Logano’s 17 career wins have come in the 29 Chase races since the elimination format was introduced in 2014.
The upside: If there’s a driver who seems immune to the pressure of the moment, it’s Logano. And the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford is a “shop rat,” who has melded with his team as a constant presence at the organization’s facility in Mooresville, N.C. If Logano needs any additional motivation (which is unlikely), he can deliver a Sprint Cup title to go with owner Roger Penske’s IndyCar championship in the organization’s 50th anniversary year.
The downside: Logano’s record at Homestead is spotty. Yes, he has a pole to his credit, but in seven starts he has but one top five (fourth last year) and two top 10s. Logano’s average starting position at the Championship 4 track is 14.4, and his average finish 17.7. In his 2014 appearance in the Championship 4, a glitch on pit road cost Logano a chance at the title.
No other driver craves a shot at the championship more than Edwards, who lost the title to Tony Stewart in 2011 on a tiebreaker after finishing second to Stewart at Homestead.
The upside: Hands down, Edwards has the best history at Homestead among the Championship 4 contenders, with an average starting spot of 11.6 and an average finish of 9.2. In addition, the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is the only Championship 4 contender with multiple wins at the 1.5-mile track, having taken the checkered flag there in 2008 and 2010. Edwards has led 568 laps at Homestead, more than double the 278 total of Kyle Busch, who is second in that category among the final four.
The downside: The speed of Edwards' Camry in race trim has been up and down this season. Though Edwards has earned a series-best six pole positions and is likely to qualify well at Homestead, his average finishing position in 35 races this season is 13.3 (only Johnson’s is higher at 14.3). After a strong start to the year, Edwards has finished 12th or worse in eight of his last 11 races.