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Track Talk: Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead

Dale Earnhardt Jr prepares for his final Cup start in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Dale Earnhardt Jr prepares for his final Cup start in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Each weekend, our panel provides their thoughts on the latest stories in NASCAR and predict the winner of the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead!

This weekend, our panel consisting of Adam LucasAshley HobbsAshley Hull, Cody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKayla Sturm, and Stephen Conley analyze the Championship 4 field, the frayed tensions between Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin, the best moments for Dale Earnhardt Jr and Matt Kenseth, and the most memorable moment to date this season!

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Question 1
Martin Truex Jr, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski battle for NASCAR glory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Which of these four drivers will win this year’s championship?

Sturm :  I’ve said it since the beginning of the season and I’m sticking to it. I think Martin Truex Jr takes the championship this year. Homestead is another mile and a half and as we’ve seen this season, Truex and the No. 78 team just seem to have those kind of monsters figured out.

After the stellar year they’ve had, I don’t see Truex just giving up the championship that easy. He’s going to go out there and fight hard and ultimately end up victorious.

Hobbs :  It all comes down to a single race, and the statistics point towards Kevin Harvick; who has an average (playoff) finish of 8.46. But, when you think of this season, the title will go to Martin Truex Jr, who has an amazing 9.66 average finish this year.

Cassidy :  With only one race to go, I think any driver could win this year’s championship. Each driver has their own strengths and weakness that could make or break their playoff run.

Lucas :  If Martin Truex Jr fails to win the championship, some fans will be completely crushed and devastated. It’s seasons like this that make you question why on earth NASCAR chooses to use a playoff format. I love the format we have now, but man it would stink to see the No. 78 team crash or blow a motor this weekend after the dominating season.

So much pressure on one race can play major head games on teams. There’s some thing I would like to change about the sports current state.

I hope we see all four drivers competing for the lead all race long, sort of like in 2011 with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards epic battle for the title. I’ll always remember that race. There was so much to gain and everything to lose on that Sunday in late November 2011. Hard to believe those two guys have retired/stepped away from our sport.

The cool thing about all four of the drivers is that each has had a different season. The No. 78 has dominated the 1.5 mile ovals, the No. 2 was strong early in the season but was mired by bad luck and some iffy performances over the summer, the No. 18 caught fire in July and August and has contended ever since, and you can never count out the No. 4 team. After all, Kevin Harvick is known as “The Closer.” We’ll see this Sunday!

Hull :  Three of these teams have exceeded my expectations. With the struggles that Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski had in the beginning, I never thought they would make it this far. My guess would be Martin Truex Jr., or Kevin Harvick. These have been the strongest two in the past two weeks. We shall see what happens though.

Conley :  I’m not personally invested in any of these drivers. However, as a fan of the sport, a first-time winner is a story everyone loves and I think Martin Truex Jr would and should be a very popular champion. If the fans want to see a champion that would cover all of the issues with the points and give them that “flashback” feel, a driver that won the most races, Truex is the guy. Plus, Truex winning a championship in Dale Earnhardt Jr’s final year, the guy that gave him his start, would be a fitting end to the season.

Magda :  I’m sticking with my preseason champ pick of Martin Truex Jr. Aside from the Texas defeat to Kevin Harvick, the No. 78 team is king at 1.5-milers. A majority of those tracks make up the playoffs. Truex has success around the South Florida track but no wins to show for. He has been close on a few occasion as Sunday may be the day Furniture Row Racing rejoices as the 2017 Cup champs.

Shoppe :  There’s no team more deserving then the Furniture Row No. 78 team of Martin Truex Jr! As we all know, the most deserving team doesn’t always win.

With all the wins and domination on their side this year, it all adds up to almost seem too good to be true. This makes me hesitant to pick them to win it all but hopefully, justice will be served this weekend and the best team wins!

Question 2
With Phoenix in the rear view mirror, is the score settled between Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott? (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

With Phoenix in the rear view mirror, is the score settled between Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott? (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Chase Elliott seemed to exact slight revenge on Denny Hamlin in the late going of the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix. Are they both even or will the rivalry continue onto 2018?

Sturm :  I wouldn’t necessarily say Chase Elliott got his revenge on Denny Hamlin. Elliott moved Hamlin up the track so he could pass, resulting in tire rub for Hamlin, which sent the No. 11 careening into the wall a few laps later. Hamlin straight up drove through Elliott and wrecked him into the wall.

There’s still quite a significant difference between the two moves. Chase Elliott did what he had to do to pass Denny Hamlin. In fact, I applaud him for being so smooth and clean about it because if it were me, it probably wouldn’t have gone over as well as it did.

However, I don’t think the rivalry will continue into 2018, at least not on track.

At Homestead this weekend, yes, maybe. But as far as 2018 goes, I think it’ll be over and done with by then. There may still be some tension between the two in general, but I don’t think it will carry over to an on-track type of tension.

Hobbs :  This is a question that everyone is talking about since Martinsville. I do not see the incidents as the same, nor do I see it as retaliation. But, some people do see it that way, and that is their perspective. Ultimately, I do think we might have seen the birth of a new rivalry to go along with Kyle Busch vs. Brad Keselowski. This sport always needs a good rivalry.

Cassidy :  Rivalries will never die in sports. Although they have their highs and lows, I believe we will see this continue for years to come.

Lucas :  In short, cooler heads will prevail heading into 2018. It’s old news now. The rivalry will only stay alive thanks to the fan bases of each said driver.

Hull :  As far as the rivalry continuing into next year, we will have to wait and see. However, it’s pretty clear that neither of them will be best buddies anytime soon. I think the deal at Phoenix was more of a racing deal, where Chase Elliott did what he needed to do and raced him hard. On the other hand, Denny Hamlin blatantly wrecked Chase Elliott. Grab the popcorn; this will be good.

Conley :  I’d like to think it’s over. Chase Elliott pulled the perfect payback, he didn’t wreck him in extreme fashion like we’ve seen in the past, like Kenseth versus Logano in 2015 or Gordon against Bowyer in ’12, and others.

He didn’t give him an inch in an area where Hamlin needed an extra inch. Elliott put Hamlin in a situation that would cost him a shot at the title as he needed to pit for that tire rub, which he did not and we all know now, that was a mistake. Onward and upward towards 2018.

Magda :  It has been a riveting rivalry to watch the last few weeks. Elliott served Denny Hamlin karma at Phoenix when the two raced closely together, resulting in Hamlin’s shot at his first title coming abruptly to an end. I’m not sure about things between the two continuing next season. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Shoppe :  I was happy to see the degree of payback Elliott did to Hamlin in Phoenix. It was neither a blatant dump and run, nor was  it a square hit in the rear even to what Denny Hamlin did to him in Martinsville. It was simply really hard aggressive racing to show how he was raced in the past.

Yes, it led to the 11’s tire going down and the result was the same but it was as “non-dirty” of a payback as we see in NASCAR. While I don’t think constant run-ins are in the near future for these two, I do expect a rivalry will continue for a long while to come.

Question 3
Friends forever. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Friends forever. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Dale Earnhardt Jr and Matt Kenseth are likely making their final Cup start this Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. What’s been both drivers’ best contribution to the sport, behind the wheel or off the track?

Sturm :  Dale Earnhardt Jr was a good driver, but he’s not a championship driver. However, the immense impact he’s had off track will stay with NASCAR for years to come. He has brought and retained so many eyes to the sport.

To say the least, Earnhardt Jr was exactly what everyone needed in 2001 after the passing of his father, sorta like a thing of comfort. He has been the face of NASCAR for the past 15 years and that’s something most drivers only dream of.

As for Matt Kenseth, the man was a beast behind the wheel. He has 39 Cup wins and a championship under his belt, which is more than Junior will retire with in both aspects. Both drivers will no doubt end up in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Ultimately, both will leave a huge impact on the sport of NASCAR.

Hobbs :  Well, Matt Kenseth is responsible for the Chase/playoff format with his Cup championship from 2003. Both drivers came into the sport and brought fresh eyes and talent. We all knew the day would come when they would retire, but I think, deep down, we were hoping they would not go out at the same time. Dale Earnhardt Jr left on his own terms, but sadly, Kenseth did not.

When it comes to Dale Earnhardt Jr, I think it is safe to say that a legacy is leaving the sport. While he may not be a champion, he is a champion in the fans’ eyes.
It will be weird to not see the greats of Gordon, Stewart, Kenseth, and Dale Jr on track next season. I guess the young blood is really coming in.

Cassidy :  Dale Earnhardt Jr has brought NASCAR fans to life by continuing such a strong fan culture. As for Matt Kenseth, I believe his championship in 2003 is the moment that stands above all for his career.   

Lucas :  For me, I think the best contribution from Matt Kenseth was the creation of the Chase for the Cup in 2004. Also, his rivalry with Jeff Gordon from 2006 to ’08 was sort of interesting to watch.

As for Dale Earnhardt Jr, his win in the 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona stands out. After returning to the track that took his father’s life earlier that year, he restored hope to NASCAR. Furthermore, its grieving fan base found out that everything would be fine for the future.

That moment in history will always stand out for me. Little E became the people’s champion that night.

I’m sad to see both of these drivers step away from the sport, but I also know that our future is extremely bright. Thank you Matt and Dale, we’ll never forget.

Hull :  Both drivers will be missed for sure. Dale Earnhardt Jr had the highest fan base ever, and has helped the NASCAR community understand concussions, although not intentionally. He also had that remarkable win at Daytona in 2001, which kind of helped the grieving Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans. He is also a great ambassador off the track as well.

Matt Kenseth has made his mark with his dry wit and humor. I remember him winning his first Cup race in 2000. He is one that is quiet, but helpful. Hopefully, it won’t be the last we see of him.

Conley :  Both of these drivers have brought a lot to the sport. For Kenseth, he is a champion, 39 time winner and a driver that exemplified perfection. He won his title based on consistency and taking exactly what his car would give him. He also raced with a very old school feel which made him popular amongst fans.

As for Earnhardt Jr, he carried on a legacy. He put forth an effort in a situation that most of us would run and hide from. He dominated restrictor plate racing for a time, and that’s not a form of racing prone to domination. Earnhardt may not have a championship to his name, but he is and was the face of the sport.  Furthermore, he is respected and loved by so many that his name is forever etched in the NASCAR stone.

Magda :  These two came into the Cup series at the same time so they’re very acquainted with each other. I think for Dale Earnhardt Jr, it’s continuing the legacy his father left and gaining new fans while keeping his dad’s fan base through the good and bad times. Although he never won a title, there was a lot of pressure on Junior throughout his racing career, especially after winning back-to-back Busch Series titles.

Matt Kenseth was this Wisconsin guy that Robbie Reiser found to drive for him. Once he was given a chance at driving a full NASCAR season, he took full advantage of it and even finished sixth filling in for Bill Elliott during his Cup debut in 1998. Kenseth was always under the radar but you can’t blame him for running a perfect season on his way to the championship in 2003.

Shoppe :  They came in together, they go out together. From the days of battling hard for the then Busch Series championships in the late 90’s, Rookie of the Year in 2000, to their final starts in Cup (at least it looks like it at the moment) on Sunday, these two have left a big mark on the sport. With Earnhardt setting new marks in fanfare, popularity, and helping bring NASCAR’s ratings and attendance numbers up just with his immense following, the sport owes him a huge thanks! 

Matt Kenseth is the driver we have to thank for the advent of the playoff era of our sport with his extremely conservative championship winning season in 2003 (the final Winston Cup champ). Another big point to be made about Kenseth’s career is that he has made the playoffs all but once which is second most only to Jimmie Johnson. I’d say Kenseth is a potential future Hall of Famer!
Question 4
Flyin' Ryan Blaney's victory at Pocono proved popular in 2017.

Flyin’ Ryan Blaney’s victory at Pocono proved popular in 2017.

From first time winners to sentimental victories, what has been the best moment to date in 2017 with Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing?

Sturm :  I’m biased so of course I’m going to have to say Kasey Kahne’s Indy win. That was quite likely the win that saved Kahne’s career in the Cup series, and the raw emotion expressed by not only Kahne but his fans as well was something special. It had been a long time coming for him and he absolutely needed that win, and to see mostly positive stuff on social media about him the week following the win was very refreshing.

Kahne showed that if he has the right position and you put him in the right spot, he’ll fight tooth and nail for the win, seeing as how he held off guys like Brad Keselowski, 7-time champ Jimmie Johnson, and “The Closer” Kevin Harvick, among a few others. It was kind of like one of those Cinderella stories. With all the news going around of Kasey Kahne possibly being out of a Cup ride after this year and then winning one of the most prestigious races in NASCAR, it was hands down my favorite moment all year (and probably for years to come).

Hobbs :  It has certainly been an interesting season, especially with all the retirement/leaving announcements. On a more positive note, Ryan Blaney getting his first victory, and Matt Kenseth (quite possibly) his last, those are moments they, and the sport, will relish.

I also feel that watching Kyle Larson grow this season has been outstanding, and he will continue to do great things.

That being said, we cannot mention the beyond incredible season that Martin Truex Jr. has had. With 7 victories, 19 stage wins, and the most points earned this season, the only way for the cherry to be put on top of this season is for him to be the champion this season.

Cassidy :  First-time winners are my favourite, and the emotion behind Ryan Blaney’s first win has topped the chart for me.

Lucas :  My first pick would be the June visit to Pocono. Now, I might be eating my words, but this felt like the passing of the torch from one generation of drivers to the next. The reason I may be eating is because Ryan Blaney held off two of our Championship 4 contenders for his first career victory.

An honorable mention would be the Xfinity Series trip to Road America with independent driver and owner Jeremy Clements, using a chassis from 2008, prevailing in the eventful annual pilgrimage to Elkhart Lake, WI. Underdogs can win too, plus he’s a fellow Palmetto State citizen like myself. Everyone loves an underdog story and this one was one for the record books.

Hull :  This is a tough one because the racing has been great all around. The best moment was seeing Ryan Blaney capturing his first win at Pocono. This marked the moment where we knew we will see good things from him in the future. And it was nice to see the Wood Brothers have their first victory in six years. Just a neat moment.

Conley :  2017 has been a year to remember. We had a new title sponsor, new point structure with the stages, retirement announcements, a driver accidentally making a future announcement, an encumbered win that kept a driver out of the playoffs, and on track action that has rivaled some of the best we’ve seen.

The one moment that stands out that I could call the “best” moment of the year would be a tie as two iconic numbers in this sport returned to Victory Lane. Ryan Blaney in the Wood Brothers No. 21 won at Pocono and Austin Dillon returned the No. 3 to the winner’s circle at Charlotte for the first time since Talladega in 2000.

Magda :  Matt Kenseth winning at Phoenix has been the best moment of the year. Kenseth was fast all season yet no wins to show for until last Sunday. He ripped away a championship berth from Chase Elliott and I saw a lot of the old Kenseth during his victory celebration.

I also think the fall Martinsville race ending under the lights was a big moment for both the track and sport. One of NASCAR’s iconic tracks had lights in their 70th anniversary season while fireworks exploded once night fell.

Shoppe :  It is so hard to pick one great moment from this year! If I had to pick one, I will say Kasey Kahne winning the Brickyard 400 at Indy! Here’s a guy who’s been written off by most of the industry, fans, and his team who has let him go at season’s end.

With a long winless streak and the weight of wondering if he still can still win on his shoulders, he pulled off a win at one of the biggest stages. Yeah, they’ve had few successes, and that win was lucky at best, but it was a huge feel good story seen in movies! Just one of many great stories from this year so far!

Solid four laps by the best team in the business! Before we race for a championship at Homestead, we shall rewind and review our Phoenix race and points reports!
Kyle scores a win by selecting Matt Kenseth at Phoenix...

Kyle scores a win by selecting Matt Kenseth at Phoenix…Meanwhile, Ashley Hobbs leads the Championship 4 field heading into Homestead.

Meanwhile, Ashley Hobbs leads the Championship 4 field heading into Homestead.

For four panelists, this weekend will decide the TPF Track Talk Cup Series Championship! Now, our team steps up to the plate by predicting the winner of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead!
Seven selections, one winner?

Seven selections, one winner?

Tiongson :  While Kyle Larson considers Homestead as one of his best tracks, Kyle Busch will win the Ford EcoBoost 400 and wins his second Cup championship.

Hobbs :  He may have had a rough patch since falling out of the playoffs, but I am hoping to see Kyle Larson turn things around at Homestead, and end the season on a high note.

Cassidy :  Kyle Larson wins on Sunday at last.

TPF Stats :  The stats point towards Kevin Harvick winning at Homestead, and thus, becoming the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Champion.

Hull :  My pick for the final race this season is Joey Logano.

Magda :  Joey Logano takes the checkers at Homestead.

Sturm :  Since I’ve already picked both drivers I think have the possibility of winning already for the playoffs, this is going to be a tough one. I guess I’ll go with Denny Hamlin since he has a few wins there.

Lucas :  I’ve dusted off my old Chance 2 Motorsports gear for this weekend in honor of our hopeful champion (and in honor of Dale Jr). Martin Truex Jr wins it all in walk off fashion!

Conley :  I’ve saved him the entire way. Martin Truex Jr ends a great season in Victory Lane.

Shoppe :  Dale Earnhardt Jr wins in his last race!

For the final time in 2017, that wraps it up, race fans!  Thanks for joining us for another edition and season of Track Talk!

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts each week and this year!  This feature will return next year with a slightly different look which we look forward to revealing in time for Daytona Speedweeks 2018!

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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