NASCAR Chase down to the final four

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My, time flies when you’re having fun.

I’ve been writing and talking about NASCAR non-stop since early February and it’s hard to believe the end of the season is finally here. Sure, I’ll be grateful for the week or two off initially, but as soon as the NASCAR Awards Banquet is done in Las Vegas, I’ll be going through major withdrawals and “jonesing” for some NASCAR racing bad.

What I like to do is prepare myself for the upcoming sleepy months with NASCAR is try to absorb as much good of the sport I can through the final race, much like a Bear does before they hibernate. Just as the Bear knows his body needs food and fat for the winter, I know I need some great NASCAR memories to keep me rolling when the sport isn’t running.

Those who don’t follow NASCAR regularly can relate more to a similar situation with the NFL being in the off-season, where stories about the league are made daily just because people love it so much – hopefully nothing close for either sport as the gripping 2015 Deflategate story.

What I like to do is try and capture a Polaroid moment in my head from the final race that carries over into the next season. I like remembering who won at Homestead, how they did it, and also who won the season ending Championship. Homestead Speedway definitely isn’t my favorite race track, and the area doesn’t lend itself to NASCAR history, but it really is the most important race of the year, therefore garnering it the most respect.

Will we see a first-time Sprint Cup Champion on Sunday? Four drivers advanced through the final stage of the Chase. Whoever finishes best wins the Sprint Cup.

Jeff Gordon has four Cup trophies, but none since 2001 – before the Chase format while series still called “Winston Cup.” This is his final Cup season. He’s saying goodbye. His Swan Song. Can you imagine how thrilling it’s going to be if he walks into the sunset with his fifth championship? Even the most devoted Dale Earnhardt fans who jeered and hissed Gordon his entire career will have a tear budding should Gordon walk away from the sport in such brilliant fashion. Could we really see a walk-off champion? He’s the only driver to have started all 16 Homestead races.

Kevin Harvick comes in as the favorite as defending Cup champion and Homestead race winner. He won both at Homestead last season, a first for the Bakersfield, CA native. He is Homestead’s all-time leader with a 7.5 average finish – 12 top-10 finishes in 14 starts. When looking at the body of work from the No. 4 team on 1.5-mile tracks this season, you’d have to say Harvick has a great shot at duplicating what he did last season. He finished third at Texas two weeks ago and has a win at Las Vegas, three second-place finishes and a fourth among the previous 10 races on 1.5s.

Kyle Busch will be the local favorite this week as the Las Vegas native can bring a championship home to the strip. As a resident of Las Vegas since 1980, I’ve noticed the city hasn’t had a lot to root for in sports and we surely don‘t have many banners as champions. Sure Las Vegas is the best of many things in the culinary and resort world, but we don’t really get excited for that stuff like most do with sports.

We have UNLV Men’s basketball champions in 1990, some minor league hockey achievements, Floyd Mayweather and Kyle’s brother Kurt Busch’s title in 2004, but then it all goes back to being Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin for city pride. Kyle Busch can bring a major sport championship to the city and I’m hoping he does. He’s finished in the top-five of the past two races on 1.5-mile tracks and he won at Kentucky in July. Everyone starts at zero this week. No points. It’s just about beating the other three of the Championship 4.

Martin Truex Jr. is the most improbable of the group. His Denver Mattress No. 78 team is an incredible story as they‘re doing the impossible in NASCAR – a single car team competing for the title. They also are the only Sprint Cup team that doesn’t operate out of the Charlotte area. These guys roll in and out of Denver every weekend. Truex Jr. has a 10th-place average finish at Homestead with a career-best runner-up in 2006. He’s been very good on 1.5s this season including leading the most laps at Charlotte in May and being runner-up at Las Vegas. If you’re looking for the bright-eyed championship feel-good story, Truex Jr. is it.

Look for a non-championship contender to win this race – someone like Joey Logano, Brad Kesleowski or Jimmie Johnson. And while I’ll root for Kyle Busch to bring a banner home, I think Harvick will be dialed in once again, and he’ll likely get his 13th runner-up finish of the season.

Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Twitter: @MicahRoberts7 Email: [email protected].

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