And then there were four.
After 35 races, the 2015 Sprint Cup Championship comes down to Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. One of those is not like the others. Gordon has the championship pedigree, albeit from many years ago. Harvick is the defending champion and Busch has done everything in NASCAR except win a Sprint Cup (well, maybe miss 11 races and still be able to win a championship).
That leaves Truex – the man who, by all means, should not be in this position. He doesn’t drive for the Hendricks or the Penskes or the Gibbses or the Stewart-Haases of the world. Heading into Homestead, he has a grand total of three Sprint Cup wins to his credit. If he wins the championship, he would have the smallest career win total of a champion since Benny Parsons in 1973. At the time of his championship, Parsons had only two career wins.
Two years ago, Truex lost his sponsor and his ride in the wake of the original race manipulation scandal. He landed with the single-car Furniture Row Racing team. In his first year with the team in 2014, Truex finished 24th in points. In his 10-year career, his best points finish is a pair of 11th places in 2007 and 2012. Not exactly barn-burning stuff for a guy who won a pair of Xfinity Series Championships driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. To make it even more complicated for Furniture Row and Truex, their shop is in Denver. Not Denver, N.C., just north of Charlotte, but Colorado, making it harder to pull talent to the team.
To get to this point, Truex has been excruciatingly consistent during the Chase (his Chase berth came via a win at Pocono). Last Sunday’s 14th-place finish at Phoenix was his first result outside of the top-10 during the Chase. He edged Carl Edwards by five points for the final spot in Sunday’s championship round.
“We’ve overcome a lot of odds and I’m just proud to be part of this group,” Truex said. “I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to do something that we’ve all dreamed about our whole lives next weekend.”
He may still not be the favorite, but I wouldn’t feel too nervous about betting on Truex.
Since NASCAR implemented the Chase format in 2004, there have been 119 races in the Sprint Cup playoffs. In those 119 races, 22 times have drivers no longer eligible for the championship have won. In 2006, non-chasers won half of the Chase races (three by Tony Stewart). In 2005, 2009 and 2013, that number was three. This year, we have seen Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. win after being eliminated from championship contention.
For a system that rewards winning, something doesn’t seem quite right about that.
Joey Logano has six wins. He won’t win the championship. Jimmie Johnson has five. Neither will he. Matt Kenseth has four wins. Take out the wreck suspension, he wouldn’t win it either. Of those still eligible, only Kyle Busch can match any of those totals (four wins). If you add the number of wins of the remaining contenders – Harvick (three), Gordon (one) and Truex (one), you do not match the number of wins that Logano has.
It just all feels gimmicky. Supporters will say it mirrors the stick and ball sports and their playoff tournaments and that it makes for meaningful races at the end of the season. To that I say, look at the Xfinity and truck series. They don’t have a Chase and they have an exciting championship battle heading into their final race of 2015. The championship should come down to the racers who had the best season, not a couple of guys with one win apiece and a guy who missed one-third of the season.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly column about NASCAR. Follow him on Twitter @Andy_Cagle.