The storylines at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Sprint Cup championship race this Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC) offer nothing short of drama, intrigue and emotion.
Vying for the title are NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon, who will compete in the final race of his illustrious career, defending champion Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, who broke his leg and foot in a February wreck only to make a remarkable comeback, and Martin Truex Jr., the Cinderella story who made it to the final four with a small, overachieving one-car team that could be the first since 1992 to win it all.
With the high-stakes race quickly approaching, the four drivers took time to sit down with SI.com to discuss the 2015 Sprint Cup season, reminisce about Gordon’s career, and let us know just how tough it is to win the Chase.
Kayla Lombardo: What are your respective thoughts on reaching the final four this season?
Jeff Gordon: Where do I begin and end? This year, obviously being my final year, I could only have hoped to be in this position. It didn’t look that way earlier in the year because we weren’t performing like we had hoped. Obviously, Martinsville was a huge race for us, and I’m happy with the way we’ve performed in general throughout the Chase. With my final race being for a championship, it’s incredible.
Martin Truex Jr.: A lot of thoughts come to mind for our group. Last year, I think we finished 24th in the points, so the turnaround has been amazing. This has been the best season of my career in the Cup Series. We’re a single car team from Denver, Colorado and my crew chief is a rookie this year, and there are a lot of other really cool things with our story, so I’m really excited about the opportunity to race for a championship this weekend.
Kevin Harvick: For me, it’s been a fairytale two years, just because of the way I’ve been fortunate for it to go. To wind up having a chance to win for the second straight year, you realize how hard it is to get to this point with all the circumstances and all the different things that you have gone through. This year has been much different than last year, but we have overcome a lot of things as a team. You just respect the fact that you made it this far because so many things could have gone a different way on any lap, at any moment.
Kyle Busch: On February 21st, I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to race again, let alone make it back to the Sprint Cup Series and back to Victory Lane through the summer months, and then have an opportunity to race myself into the Chase for this year with all the injuries and everything I had, but it’s been a dream season beyond the first 11 weeks of it. Being able to get back in the car, though, was a test and we passed a lot of different things this year in order to get back into this Chase-eligible position, and then to make it this far, I’ve never been able to accomplish that in my years of racing. So to be able to go race this weekend for my first championship is going to be pretty special.
KL: Kevin, what’s it like to be in a position to repeat? How do you handle the pressure that comes with being on the brink of doing something so special?
KH: I think last year really alleviated a lot of pressure for this year, just for the fact that I knew what to expect this year. That experience is going to be good for us. I think our team has been through so many character-building moments throughout the last couple of years. And while the pressure is still going to be there, everyone on my team has already dealt with it.
KL: Martin, Kevin and Kyle, you three guys are kind of playing the villain role in Jeff’s story by trying to spoil his final season. How is that for you guys?
JG: I’m used to it! (laughs)
KH: I think for me, my first win came by such a small margin against Jeff …
JG: Yeah, he’s been a spoiler before!
KH: So, for me, from the outside looking in, you look at these other guys, and you have such great stories in general, and then you have Jeff’s story with his last race, it’s almost like you want to stand back and take it all in. And sure, you want to win, but I think it’s a pretty cool moment to be a part of with as much as he’s meant to the sport and everything that he’s done. I feel like it’s kind of the ending that could be. You want to be the spoiler, unfortunately, and you want to win, but it’s also a different situation just for the fact that it’s his last race.
JG: That could bring a tear to my eye! But, I agree with Kevin. There are so many unique scenarios here. You’ve got a sentimental favorite in Kyle because of all that he went through this year. You’ve got a guy in Martin who has been a talented driver in the Series, but has always seemed to miss one of those breaks, or the right timing, and now he has it. I guess there is a sentimental aspect on my side, too, with it being my final race. And then you’ve got the past champion in Kevin, who has dominated the sport the last two years, so I think it’s a pretty unique group.
KL: How do you all feel about the current Chase format? Is there anything that you’d like to see changed in the future?
KH: I think there needs to be some emphasis put on the points leader from the first 26 races. I don’t know what that points number needs to be, but I think that it needs to count as a win or two wins.
JG: You should almost get a bye for the first three races, and automatically go to the second round, or something like that.
KB: A first round bye, that makes sense. You get that in other sports, right?
JG: Beyond this room, we all agree that the format is pretty exciting and intense. I don’t know if you can do much more with it than that, but the person who leads the points going into the Chase seems to be easily forgotten once it all starts, and since it’s so hard to accomplish that, it should be rewarded more.
MT: A first round bye would certainly make it pretty interesting. That’s a good idea.
KB: You can go from first to 16th in one week. That’s pretty crazy.
KH: But that’s what makes it kind of intriguing.
JG: I will say, I like this format with not having to deal with 10 specific tracks throughout the year. To me, I think it has been more enjoyable and beneficial for me and my team even though it’s extremely hard to get to this position. Before, it was 10 straight, and it didn’t seem to bring things down to the final race and make it quite as exciting and as intense as this one. Not saying it’s any more or less rewarding as a champion, but I think it’s good for the sport.
KL: Where does the Chase rank in terms of the toughest titles to win in sports?
MT: It’s gotta be the toughest. Just from everything that can happen. Not only are you racing 42 other cars every weekend — there’s 16 in the Chase to start, but there’s still 42 other cars on the track. That makes it tough in itself. But then you have the eliminations, and there’s a lot more that can go wrong than in most other sports.
KB: Pit crews on pit road, tires that blow out, rear axle seals that go out, engines that blow up. There’s so many different variables besides just deflated balls.
JG: All the other teams are still out there, and they have something at stake. So it’s not just like they’re moving over for the guys who are going for the championship. They’re racing for a win. They’re racing for points. They’re racing for sponsors. That throws a whole other set of difficult circumstances into it.
KH: Nobody wants to let their team down. Nobody wants to be a driver who lays down for the last race. The guy racing for 20th in the points is racing for winner’s circle money—there’s millions of dollars at stake for even 20th in the points, there’s all kinds of things all over the board that people are still racing for.
KL: What are your feelings about this past weekend in Phoenix with the rain-shortened race, and the impact that had on setting the Final Four?
KB: It’s no different than a Daytona 500 getting rain-shortened. It’s not what you want. It’s not what the fans want. It’s not what the drivers want. But unfortunately, it’s Mother Nature and we can’t fix that because we don’t perform in domes. We’re on speedways that are outdoors, so being an outdoor sport, it lends itself to that sometimes.
MT: If you can’t get it done in 200 laps, what’s 300 gonna do?
KL: What are your thoughts on what happened with the suspension at Martinsville with the “Wild West” antics between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano that crippled Logano’s title chances after he’d won three straight races?
KH: I think it shows how much passion and competitiveness there is in the sport. I know that there’s a lot of different views. Things happen, but everyone cares about what they’re doing. You want to do the best that you can for your team and when you feel like you’ve been done wrong, sometimes you make mistakes and react the wrong way. But I think if you ask Matt what happened in six months, he would probably say that he’d handle it differently. But when you’re involved in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to control those emotions, especially with everything that had happened. There’s just a lot of things going through your mind.
JG: I’d like to think that Joey would probably say the same thing six months from now. I think all of us as drivers look at situations that were either good or bad, and in the bad ones you usually say, “What could I have done to prevent that from happening, or from handling it that way, or how could I have approached it a different way?” And my gosh, that’s a thousand times throughout every race that we do that. But when it’s something big like that, I think you definitely want to avoid that situation in the future. None of us want enemies. We all want to go race hard and clean and have a shot at a win or a championship, and you can’t do that by having enemies out there.
KH: And in the end, enemies or not, both of those guys probably think that they handled it the wrong way with a championship on the line. Both of those cars were two of the fastest cars throughout the year, and they’d look back on it and say, “That might be the best chance that I had to win a championship in however many years,” because they aren’t going to just roll around all the time. So you have to think about your team first, but sometimes, you let your emotions get ahead of that. Unfortunately, I’ve been in that position a couple of times.
JG: Me too.
KH: But you learn from those situations and you see how much it affected your team and things that it hurt, so there’s so many things to be learned from it. But in the end, there’s raw emotion that it brings out, and it shows the intensity of the situation.
JG: I think also if you compare it to other sports, people have a hard time understanding high speed car accidents. But if you look at it—whether it’s baseball or hockey—there are things that happen out there that are sort of code or old order to maintain respect. And when you feel like you’ve lost some respect, or people don’t think that you have that edge, you have to find a way to balance that out or get it back. If somebody pushes you around or shoves you or takes advantage of a situation, and you’re not happy about that, how do you get that back so that it doesn’t happen to you again? I think Matt wanted to make sure that people realize if you’re going to race [him] hard, race [him] hard, but if you’re going to wreck [him] for a win, just know that that’s probably going to cost you something in the long run, as well. I think in general, in sports, that seems to happen a lot. Even outside of racing.
KH: It’s kind of an eye for an eye. But most of the time, in this situation, we would have to ask Denny [Hamlin] first for what the real answer is to this problem. (laughs)
JG: Where is he when we need him?
KL: So, are there any particular changes you’d like to see for next season? Perhaps in aerodynamic packages, lower downforce, high drag?
MT: Lower downforce is the way to go. I think everybody across the field agrees with that. The racing was really good at Darlington and at Kentucky. Everybody thought it was a good step for racing, and the cars are more fun to drive, harder to drive and the racing was better. You can get closer to each other, which is what we’re all looking for, so I think in that department, we’re heading in the right direction.
KH: Maybe less rain next year, that’d be great. It rained everywhere.
KL: Jeff, which of your 93 wins at this point in your career stands out the most for you?
JG: Well right now, Martinsville. That was an amazing experience with the fans and my family and team with how much that win meant. Prior to Martinsville, I’ve always said it was the inaugural Brickyard 400 in ’94. That was a very special race to just be a part of. Everybody wanted to win that race. I raced in Indiana, so I sort of was an adopted Hoosier at the time, and then we won it and it was really like a fairytale type of experience. My life changed forever after that, for sure, so it’s hard to top that one.
KB: There were like 56 cars that entered to qualify for that race, weren’t there?
JG: Yeah, it was crazy.
KH: That used to be normal, though. I think in my first XFinity race, there were 65 cars at Darlington.
JG: Yeah, you’re right. When we went to test at Indy, there were 10,000 people there for a test. I’ve never seen a zoo like that before. People were just three-deep around the chain-link fence just trying to get autographs.
KH: Do you ever think back to your very first Cup race and what happened then?
JG: Yeah, unfortunately. I remember spinning out and backing into the wall.
KH: That was the same day that [Richard] Petty quit, right?
KB: It’s kind of ironic. It’s kind of like the passing of the torch.
JG: It just was circumstances. It wasn’t planned out that way or anything. I didn’t think of how special that day was until I got there that weekend and watched him walk through the garage area and there were just swarms of people everywhere he went and how gracious he was. And then in the driver’s meeting, it was cool because Burt Reynolds and others who were big celebrities at that time were there, and it was a big deal with one hell of a championship on the line.
KH: There was a lot of history on that one day.
KB: Well, it’s 1992 all over again in 2015!
JG: Well listen, you guys are hopefully going to be happy about this. So [Petty] gave away these money clips. There was nothing special about it other than the fact that it was his logo. But I kept that thing for all these years and it was really special to me. So 23 years later, I have to step it up a little bit. So we got something nice for you guys for the final race. Passing the torch. And 20-something years from now, you’re going to have to step it up to another level.
KB: It ain’t gonna be 20. I’m telling you that. I’ve already been here for 10. (laughs)
KL: How much longer do the rest of you guys see yourselves doing it?
MT: For me, I take it one year at a time. I’ve only got a one-year contract, so one year at a time. (laughs)
KH: I’ve got at least three more. I’ll be 40 this year, and I think a lot of it will be having a conversation with Jeff as to how he got to this point, or with Dale Jarrett or Rusty Wallace, or some of those guys and ask, “How did you decide to retire and what was the thing that triggered it for you?”
MT: For me, it’ll be when I’m not having fun anymore. Right now I’m having the best time of my life. Winning is fun.
KL: Jeff, you were on the cover of SI this week ahead of the final race of your career. You’ve received tributes and appreciation from fans and fellow competitors across the sport this season. What has it all meant to you, especially as the end approaches?
JG: I wasn’t anticipating the cover. I wasn’t expecting it, but I think that’s huge for me, and I appreciate it very, very much. All I know is we’re heading to Homestead for our final race and the whole experience from day one racing quarter midgets to today has been the most incredible ride of my life, and it’s been an honor this year being a part of this sport and seeing the tributes and fans and media doing the things that they’ve done. I’ve already won. I’m playing with house money from this point on. I think a lot of us feel that way. But for me, I have one final race and I get to battle for a championship. If we win it, it will just be almost too unbelievable to even accept. But if we don’t, it’s still not bad, it’s actually still pretty good.