MIAMI—This much we know about Sunday’s season-finale, which airs at 3 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN: There are four drivers left in the Chase for the Cup, they’re level in the standings (thanks to a points reset after last week’s race at Phoenix), and they’re all good enough to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway—a 1.5-mile oval that casts a long shadow on a sprawling everglade park. The outlook beyond that is a bit swampy, even with four new drivers in the running and on our rankings grid. The four-wide tie for first in the standings means that the championship will go to the race’s highest finisher. That could be the first-place driver, which has happened just once in a decade. Or that could be the fifth-place guy, who has gone on to win four of the last 10 series titles. Either way, NASCAR will crown a first-time series champion. Our pick has been clear from the start.
8. Marcos Ambrose
Actual rank: 23 (853 pts)
He washed up on our shores eight years ago with a backpack, a duffel bag and a mission: to prove that an Aussie can make it as a stock car racer in America. But Ambrose, of course, did more than just fill the grid. He went on to drive for The King, Richard Petty, landed on the pole three times, was victorious twice, and scored 18 top-fives and 46 top-10s—the most recent coming just last week in Phoenix, where he made Ryan Newman really work to lock up that final spot in the Chase. This Sunday will be Ambrose’s last stateside start for the foreseeable future. Not long after the race is over he’ll return to his native Australia and race for Team Penske in the V8 Supercar series, where he won a pair of championships in ’03 and ’04. No, he never contended for a Cup championship and won’t be vying for one at Homestead on Sunday. But he won many admirers in the grandstand and the respect of his peers, which might be the greatest of NASCAR’s many prizes.
7. Chase Elliott
Actual rank: 1 (N-wide: 1185 pts)
Saturday’s Nationwide race won’t be more than a Sunday drive for Elliott. With a top-10 at Phoenix last week, the 18-year-old rookie put his points lead over JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith out of reach and, in effect, became NASCAR’s youngest ever champion. You might say this was bound to happen, given that Elliott’s father, Bill, is a former champion and soon to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But Chase’s career didn’t start on the pole. In fact, just last November, he couldn’t even score a ride on account of being so young. But now? He'll have an opportunity next year to further distinguish himself from his old man by repeating as Nationwide champion before moving up a level in the Hendrick organization. And how lucky they are to have Elliott on the farm? Jeff Gordon isn’t getting any younger.
6. Kyle Busch
Actual rank: 8 (2280 pts)
When the racing gods closed one door—in this case, a chance at a Cup title—on Busch, they opened another in the truck series, where he simply can’t lose. Between him, Erik Jones and Darrell Wallace Jr. (who drive for and, occasionally, alongside), Busch has tallied 13 wins—a single-season best for a truck team. He has been about as strong in the Nationwide series too, winning seven times to put Joe Gibbs Racing in striking distance of the owners’ title. At Homestead he’ll attempt to close the gap and end his Cup campaign on a positive note. Whatever happens on Sunday, he’ll finish the season ranked no worse than 13th, a result that likewise speaks to Busch’s impressive weekend work ethic.
5. Kyle Larson
Actual rank: 17 (1049 points)
How ironic that the youngest driver on the track was the most mature after suffering a misfortune at the hands of a fellow driver. Larson would’ve been well within his right to pick a fight with Ryan Newman after the Chase title contender bumped the rookie down from 11th place to 13th. But rather than take his cues from elders like Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon and get into a physical beef with Newman on pit road, Larson took the high road, calling Newman’s move “a little upsetting … but I understand.” The same can hardly be said of Larson’s season—a run of success that may well have been foretold at Homestead last year. There, in just his fourth Cup start, he led a lap and finished 15th. An effort that good or better on Sunday, and he will easily secure rookie of the year honors over Austin Dillon, who lags 87 points behind.
4. Ryan Newman
Actual rank: T-1 (5000 pts)
Asked on media day what it would mean to win a championship for owner Richard Childress, who hasn’t enjoyed such bragging rights since he could boast that Dale Earnhardt Sr. was his driver, Newman was, well, Newman. “I want to do it for myself first,” he said. But as much as it may seem like he has gotten this far by approaching the Chase with an engineer’s calculation and going for solid finishes instead of outright wins, to hear him tell it three days before the Phoenix race that’s hardly the case. “I would love to have eight wins,” he said. “But in the end we’re doing the absolute best that we possibly can and we've been knocking on the door.” And if, indeed, he were to kick it down and go all the way? What fun that would be. So would watching NASCAR scramble to rewrite its rule book to ensure that a winless driver never holds its championship trophy again.
3. Denny Hamlin
Actual rank: T-1 (5000 pts)
How can we be surprised that Hamlin has bounced back so strongly from a woeful 2013 campaign that saw him post fewer wins, top-5s and top-10s than he did in 2006, his first full year driving Cup? He stopped short of predicting this run after advancing past the first elimination race at Dover—and just barely, too. Now after surviving again in Phoenix, where he rallied to a fifth-place finish, he’s on the verge of becoming the first driver since Tony Stewart to win a series championship for Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s a position that, funny enough, Hamlin was in when Stewart was still a driver for JGR. Four years ago around this time, Hamlin was controlling his title destiny until 12th and 14th place showings at Phoenix and Homestead provided Jimmie Johnson all the opening he needed to pip him for the title. Naturally, this shortcoming has stuck with Hamlin, but not in the way you might think. “In 2010, you know, even though I appreciated [that run], I didn't … I just thought it would come every single year,” he said. “And when you have a tough year like 2013, it allows you to refocus and put the bigger perspective in front of you. I think that's allowed me to race a lot easier this year, even though performance hasn't really shown it a whole lot. We have struggled a little bit with speed, but we've faced elimination each and every round, and we've overcome it every single round.” If he overcomes again, don’t call it a comeback. Call it a meant-to-be.
2. Kevin Harvick
Actual rank: T-1 (5000 pts)
Harvick unquestionably faces the most pressure of the four remaining newbie would-be titlists. He has the best car—a Chevy that ran away from the field time and again at Phoenix last week—and a sizeable personal cavalry: seven allies between the Hendrick and Stewart-Haas garages whose help he should be able to count on if the going gets tough. Five of those seven drivers—Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.—broke into the Cup series around about the same time that Harvick did. Everyone of those drivers except for the oh-fer Junior has titles to their names, more than a few of them earned at Harvick’s expense. But now that his old foils are out of the way, the 38-year-old Harvick has no more excuses and little time left to prove that he’s every bit as good as those guys, if not better. If he doesn’t come away with the championship on Sunday, it could hang over him a long time—and he could well wind up turning to his title sponsor, Budweiser, for solace after coming up short again.
1. Joey Logano
Actual rank: T-1 (5000 pts)
Under the old rules the Penske pilot would have been able to parlay his sixth-place showing at Phoenix into a 26-point lead heading into Homestead. It would make him a virtual lock for the championship. He knows it, and he could let it gnaw at him. But he won’t, not with so many details to drill down to keep his championship drive alive. “Execution is the biggest deal,” Logano said. “My team has been very strong, keeping the pressure to a low point and being able to do their job in those situations. I feel like that's our strongest point. I like our chances because of that.” So do we. In fact, we’ve liked the No. 22 team’s chances from the beginning of the Chase. He’s stayed in the game in every conceivable way—by dominating, by surviving, and by rallying from adversity. His average finishing position, 5.3, isn’t just the highest in the Chase. It’s right in that finale finishing range of series champions past. Logano’s resilience should be more than commended. It should soon be rewarded a big check, a champagne shower and an oversized trophy he can raise high over his head.