And then there were four.
Maybe not the storybook four, but the four we got.
After 35 races, a whole heap of laps and miles, the 2016 Sprint Cup Championship comes down to 400 miles at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It will be decided Sunday among the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Kyle Busch (the defending champ) and Carl Edwards, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano.
At the advertised distance last Sunday and Phoenix, that final four had a different look. Matt Kenseth was leading the race and was about to punch his ticket for his chance to win his second Cup championship. Had Michael McDowell not crashed with two to go, it would have been a Gibbs trio of Kenseth, Edwards and Busch.
But (there’s always a but) on the green-white-checkered restart Busch hit the No. 88 of Alex Bowman, causing Bowman to go very low into turn one. Kenseth’s spotter cleared him. But when Kenseth went to get into one, he caught Bowman’s front bumper and went spinning into the wall, crashing not only his Toyota, but also his title hopes.
So, basically, Busch caused an incident that led to a wrecked racecar for his teammate and a lost chance for a race win for a guy, Bowman, in a fill-in role trying to secure a ride for 2017.
Usually, this would be cause for a whole bunch of whining and moaning from all those involved. Maybe some fisticuffs or threats of fisticuffs.
But, unexpectedly, there was none of that. Everyone realized there were three guys racing hard, each with something to gain and a lot to lose.
It was actually a nice finish to the first three rounds of the Chase. They had been bereft of much excitement or intrigue up to that point and it set up some pretty interesting storylines for the finales.
The one you will be hearing about most of the week will be Johnson’s quest for championship No. 7, a feat that would tie Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty in some pretty rare air. If you remember, I had Johnson written off in September, after the Lowe’s team spent late spring and the summer as garbage. Like straight-up garbage. I thought there was no way they were going to rally from some truly dismal outings. Again, I was wrong. Johnson’s team has arguably been the strongest in the Chase, getting wins early in the rounds and coasting for a couple of races. A 48 team clicking at Homestead doesn’t bode well for the other championship contenders or the NASCAR record book.
Then you have Busch. Many, including me, felt that his 2015 championship was a not warranted after he missed the first 11 races of the year with an injury. He is also the driver coming into the finale with no Chase wins.
Edwards came to Gibbs in 2014 for this moment. After 10 years driving for Jack Roush, Edwards joined the powerhouse team to win a championship. And his window may be closing. Once the promising upstart doing backflips off his cars, he has evolved into the long-in-the-tooth veteran whose window may be closing. (That last sentence made me feel old. Edwards is younger than I am).
Then you have Joey Logano. The kid who has been racing since he was in diapers, was dubbed sliced bread (as in best thing since …) and has been in Cup since he was 18. Now at the ripe-old age of 26, has a chance to fulfill that promise and collect his first Cup championship – a championship that may have been robbed from him last year by, ironically, Kenseth.
It may not be Cubs/Indians game seven, but Sunday should be NASCAR’s moment. The Phoenix ending set the stage and, for the sake of the sport, I hope Homestead can deliver.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly column during the NASCAR season. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.