Ever since NASCAR implemented the current rules in which the highest finishing playoff contender wins the championship, it has taken a victory in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to lay claim to the Cup. Moreover, it is getting increasingly difficult to determine who the champion will be until the final lap of the race.
In 2016 Jimmie Johnson won the championship by three positions over Joey Logano. In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. won over Kyle Busch in second. Kevin Harvick finished fourth. Last year, all four of the playoff contenders finished in the top four in perhaps the most dramatic showdown ever with this format.
It will almost certainly take a victory to win the championship again this week, but recent stats on the contenders suggest that a 1-2-3-4 finish is unlikely.
Based on the Homestead record alone, Denny Hamlin would seem to be the driver in the greatest risk of falling outside of the top five. He has two wins on this track in 2009 and 2013. With the 2013 victory, he was the last driver to win under the old format, but Hamlin has not been nearly as strong in race trim since.
Hamlin has been solid in qualification. He’s won the pole for this event in three of the last four races, but faded to ninth or worse each time. In 2016 he started fourth and finished ninth. That gives him an average finish of 9.4 in the last five Homestead races.
Hamlin wasn’t in playoff contention last year. He led 41 laps and finished sixth in the first stage and eighth in Segment 2. The last time he entered the finale with a chance to win the Cup was in 2014. He finished seventh after leading 50 laps. This year, he may be a little rusty… Then again, he may be hungry.
Hamlin’s win last week at ISM Raceway gives him the opportunity to battle for the Cup. That was his fifth top-five in the last six races of the season.
Since NASCAR implemented this format, a different driver has won the championship each year. Hamlin is the only driver among the top four who can keep that streak alive.