Truex strengthens grip as driver to beat for NASCAR title
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. ended NASCAR’s final practice on top.
Do it Sunday when it counts and Truex will drive away with his first NASCAR Cup championship.
Truex was fastest in the final practice of the season, hitting 171.195 mph on Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway and again stamping himself as the driver to beat in the finale. He has led the Cup Series in nearly every measurable category and is a seven-time winner this year.
“I think we definitely have enough speed to do what we need to do,” Truex said.
Truex, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick race for the title in the winner-take-all format that crowns a champion. Truex’s No. 78 Toyota scraped the wall in practice Saturday and it still didn’t matter.
Busch, of Joe Gibbs Racing, hoped to join seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson as the only active drivers with multiple titles.
“Everything looks a lot similar to 2015 right now,” he said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a solid seventh in practice, but an engine change will drop him to the rear of the field for his final NASCAR Cup race .
The champ walks away with the sport’s biggest prize on Sunday. Earnhardt, Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth are set to walk away.
Here’s a guide of what to watch in NASCAR’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway:
ONE LAST RIDE
NASCAR says goodbye to its most popular driver. Earnhardt makes the 631st and final start of his Cup career, ending a run that included two Daytona 500 championships and an unyielding love from his “Junior Nation” fan base.
Earnhardt is winless this year and, at 21st in the standings, is on pace for his worst full-season finish since 2009.
But none of those sad stats really matters on Sunday.
Earnhardt will receive a fitting farewell at Homestead, much like the celebrations thrown each of the last two years for retired champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
“I just want to run all the laps. I want to finish the race in one piece ,” he said. “I don’t have anything outside the car that’s on a to-do list. As far as I’m concerned, I’m good with coming in here and doing the things we always do every race weekend.”
Earnhardt will join the NBC Sports broadcast booth next season.
Patrick shed tears Friday when she announced the end of her racing career was on the horizon. Patrick will wrap up the regular season at Homestead and race only in a Danica Double next season. She’ll drive in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 for a yet-to-be-determined team.
But this is it for a full-time ride at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Patrick landed on magazine covers and Super Bowl commercials and popped up on TV cooking shows, among her many outside endeavors, during her reign as one of NASCAR’s top personalities.
She just never had the results to match the hype. Patrick never scored a top-five finish and had only seven top 10s (though she led laps at the Daytona 500) in 189 career starts.
“What I’ve always wanted is to just be remembered as a great driver, then remembered as a girl,” she said. “I don’t care if you remember me as a girl. Of course I am, it’s obvious. But to be remembered as a great driver, that’s it.”
STEADY AS HE GOES
The NASCAR driver exodus includes Kenseth, the 2003 series champion. Kenseth was forced out of his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing when sponsorships dried up and he found no takers for 2018. He knows Sunday will likely mark his final race.
He went out in style .
Kenseth won the 39th race of his career last week at Phoenix and was teary-eyed as he climbed out of his Toyota. He doesn’t get to end his career the way he hoped. He thinks he’s got a handful of good years left in him and can win races and compete for championships.
“What a storybook ending,” Kenseth said. “I wasn’t sure that I was ready for this and to move onto something next year, but honestly God made the decision for me. He put me here for a reason and he’s taking me out for a reason.”
While all eyes are on the championship four drivers, Denny Hamlin might be the driver to beat.
Hamlin, who turned 37 on Saturday, again ends a season without his first career NASCAR Cup championship. He lost his shot at advancing to the final four last week when he was caught up in a wreck with Chase Elliott. Elliott acknowledged he raced Hamlin aggressively, just as Hamlin did when he wrecked Elliott from the lead at Martinsville.
Hamlin had reeled off five straight top-seven finishes until Phoenix and his No. 11 Toyota seemed like it could be a championship favorite. He won the pole and said his goal is to win — and not necessarily help JGR teammate Busch win the championship.
“I love this race track and wish we would have our chance, but that will be another day, another year for us,” Hamlin said.
Front Row Motorsports driver Landon Cassill (winless in 258 starts) and Leavine Family Racing driver Michael McDowell (winless in 248 starts) make the final starts for their respective teams and each don’t have a ride in 2018. ... Tony Stewart can win his third championship as a team owner and first since he retired at the end of last season. “It’s just as tense, probably more tense when you’re not in the car, to be honest, than when you are in the car. At least when you’re in the race car, you’re in control of what’s going on,” he said. ... SHR driver Kurt Busch, who won the Daytona 500, faces an uncertain future, with no sponsor committed for next year.
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