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Keselowski and Hendrick: What might have been
On April 18, 2009, Mark Martin won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway . It was the 36th NASCAR premier series win for the 50-year-old driver and his first with team owner Rick Hendrick. A week and a day later, Brad Keselowski won the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway . It was the first career win for the 25-year-old, and the first premier series victory for independent car owner James Finch. Two distinctly different races won by two distinctly different drivers. Martin's NASCAR career was beginning to wind down; Keselowski's, on the other hand, appeared to have only just begun. But there was one string that tied the two together -- Hendrick Motorsports . HMS was home to Martin, Jimmie Johnson , Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr . And it was expected by many to be the future home of the up-and-coming kid from Rochester Hills, Michigan. But a collection of factors that came together throughout the course of that season altered the racing landscape as well as the career path of Keselowski. It would be nearly three years before the next driver change at HMS. By then Keselowski had not only found a new home, but he was also on his way to winning the Sprint Cup championship. 'I WAS NOT GOING TO LOSE' The sun was out and the grandstands were packed when the 2009 Aaron's 499, the season's ninth Sprint Cup race, went green for the final time. As race leader Ryan Newman tried to keep Earnhardt Jr., the crowd favorite, in check, Keselowski darted to the inside behind Carl Edwards on the track's massive backstretch. It was a move that didn’t seem to mean much at the time. But at the start-finish line with two laps remaining, Edwards and Keselowski shot to the outside entering Turn 1. "Here they come; look at the 99 and ..." NASCAR on FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip began. " Brad Keselowski ," lead announcer Mike Joy and co-analyst Larry McReynolds chimed in. When the white flag appeared, Edwards and Keselowski had caught and were beginning to pull away from Newman and Earnhardt Jr. Racing back through the tri-oval, Keselowski turned his No. 09 Chevrolet to the outside, and then quickly dropped to the bottom as Edwards moved up to block. Realizing the bottom lane was now open, Edwards reacted quickly -- but not quickly enough. Contact sent the No. 99 Ford spinning. Edwards' car came off the track briefly and was beginning to settle back onto the track it was struck by Newman's Chevrolet. The impact sent Edwards roof-first into the frontstretch catch fence. Meanwhile, Keselowski kept his foot in the gas, racing across the finish line for the win just ahead of Earnhardt Jr. "I was not going to lose," Keselowski said in his post-race winner's interview. "I was not going to lift and (I was going to) hold my ground and consequences be damned." A full-time competitor at the time for JR Motorsports (which, coincidentally, counts Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick among its ownership group) in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Keselowski said he didn't know what the future held after his first premier series win. "I know I don't have anything locked in," he said. "That's really all I can say ... I don't have a job secured for next year, and everything to this point has been wait-and-see. I know this certainly can't hurt." But behind the scenes, moves were already underway. Finch's Phoenix Racing, which purchased it engines from HMS, had put Keselowski in the car at the suggestion of Hendrick. And the JRM/Hendrick pipeline, which grooms talent in the lower series to help restock the Sprint Cup program, was taking root. Keselowski had made two starts for Hendrick the previous year, and would make seven all together in '09, in addition to five races with Finch. Perhaps his future wasn't as cloudy as it appeared. "Rick had come out and told me, actually had made it a point to say to the media that he thought I was a future driver at Hendrick," Keselowski told NASCAR.com recently. There was only one problem. SWAN SONG? On July 4, 2008, HMS officials announced that Martin had signed a two-year agreement to drive the organization's No. 5 Chevrolet. According to the news release, Martin, who would run a full schedule in 2009, would "run a partial Sprint Cup schedule ... in 2010, sharing the No. 5 Chevy with a to-be-determined second driver.” By most accounts, that driver was expected to be Keselowski. But in May of '09, less than three weeks after Martin's Phoenix victory, HMS officials announced a revision to the '08 agreement. The veteran driver would return in 2010 to once again run the entire season. With Keselowski waiting in the wings and Martin winning and agreeing to return the following year, "Rick was kind of half pregnant," Keselowski said. "He (was) stuck. "My feeling was, after I had won Talladega, I'm going to get this 5 car ride partially next year, pair it with something else, let's go. I didn't know what it was going to be. We'll figure it out; let's go." A phone call and subsequent meeting with Hendrick, however, changed all that. "I was kind of expecting more of a 'Hey, we're going to expedite the process of clearing out the rest of this,' " Keselowski said of the meeting, "And instead I got a 'Hey, I don't have a ride for you. You need to figure something else out. I'll try to help.' "That was late April, early May of that year. My intent ... was to give him that time to kind of make right on it somehow, find a ride because he had made me the promise that I would have that car. It didn't sit all that well, but I understood the circumstances and so forth." Months passed and Keselowski busied himself with his full-time XFINITY Series effort at JRM while making a handful of Sprint Cup starts for Hendrick and Finch. Hendrick, in the meantime, was exploring the various avenues that might keep Keselowski in the HMS camp. Possible scenarios included Stewart-Haas Racing , at the time a two-team effort, and Red Bull Racing. Consideration was even given to fielding a Sprint Cup entry out of the JR Motorsports shop, according to the owner. But the pieces didn't fit and as the summer wore on, Keselowski's future remained uncertain. "I wanted him to wait a year," Hendrick told NASCAR.com. "... I don't remember all the details, but I do remember that Mark had done so well, and I had tried to talk (Mark) into staying. "I've told all our guys, the first time I sat down with Brad he impressed me because he was so intense about the whole car and wanted to be involved in everything. He was just so committed. I told our guys he's got the right attitude about racing and driving. I just needed him to wait." Waiting, though, wasn't part of Keselowski's plan. "My perception is a driver is a lot like a perishable fruit," Keselowski said. "You've got so much time, then he spoils and goes bad. There are a lot of variables, much like anything." PENSKE COMES CALLING The Keselowski family has always been involved in racing. Brad's father Bob was an ARCA Series standout and a former winner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Ron Keselowski, an uncle, scored two top-five finishes in 68 premier series starts while older brother Brian Keselowski has one or more starts in all three of NASCAR's national series. "We knew the Keselowski name from being here in Detroit," Walt Czarnecki, an executive vice president at Penske Corp., said. "His dad, his uncle, all that. They would run out at MIS ( Michigan International Speedway ) when (Penske) owned the track." But it was a business associate, lawyer/agent John Caponigro, who brought up the young driver's name during a conversation in 2009. "We thought he was committed to Hendrick," Czarnecki said. "He'd been on loan to James Finch to run several races. But some things were changing." Conversations with Keselowski ensued, in Michigan as well as Mooresville, North Carolina, where Team Penske is headquartered. "All this time," Czarnecki said, "Still having this somewhat uncertain situation with Mr. Hendrick." Team Penske had grown from a two-team to a three-team organization in '08, fielding cars for drivers Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish Jr . In '09 Newman departed to join owner/driver Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing and 32-year-old David Stremme was brought on board to fill the open seat. But the Keselowski opportunity was intriguing, according to Czarnecki. "We've tried to sign on what we consider to be the best available young drivers with a great deal of potential that we could mold and have them grow in our organization," he said. "And I think that Brad certainly fit that description. "But above and beyond that, he had a bigger vision as to what role he wanted to play in terms of the development of the team. ... Just how he saw different things coming together ... "Some of it may have been a little unrealistic; some of it was certainly the enthusiasm of a young man who had a goal in mind. ... But he had this great enthusiasm and he had this great desire and this great commitment. And that appealed to us." With the Hendrick effort seemingly stalled, Keselowski went back to Penske with a request -- to compete full-time in both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series. In addition to its Sprint Cup effort, Team Penske was fielding one full-time XFINITY Series team with driver Justin Allgaier . Expanding that program to two teams running all the races was problematic, given the economy at the time. Told such a scenario was unlikely, Keselowski was left to consider his few available options. But Penske officials continued to work until enough of the appropriate pieces were in place. "Sure enough, Roger called me one night and said 'Alright, I've got it put together,' " Keselowski said. "It kind of caught me off guard. I was sold. That's it; he made it happen." "I couldn't sit around and wait. ... Roger had gone above and beyond to put something together that I felt like was the opportunity I needed. ... The economy was on its way down fast; Roger (through his various businesses) had a lot of immunities to the economy. Rick made it very clear to me that he was not going to invest himself without having a sponsor, and the economy was not in a spot where he could facilitate that." Hendrick had been aware of the Penske interest from the beginning, having had conversations with his fellow team owner about Keselowski's status. "Roger called me and asked me could he talk to him," Hendrick said. "I didn't want to stand in his way. Brad's a hell of a talent. It was a timing issue. "It's worked out for him. At his age it would have been nice if we could have kept him. ... If I got a call from Roger and I was in his spot I would have done exactly what he did." POSTSCRIPT On Sept. 1, 2009, Team Penske officials announced that the organization had signed Keselowski to compete full-time in both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series beginning the following season. Since then, Keselowski has won 17 Sprint Cup races, 28 XFINITY Series races and championships in both series. "I don't want to sound mercenary but he brought us our first Sprint Cup championship (in 2012)," Czarnecki said. "Because that vision that he outlined, we tried to work with him and bring people along, bring people into the organization, have him work with people like (crew chief) Paul Wolfe, it was really the realization of that vision. That's what it (has) meant. "And his intensity hasn't changed." Former teammates Busch and Hornish have departed, and fellow driver AJ Allmendinger has come and gone. Keselowski, now 32, is the veteran of a Penske group that now includes 25-year-old teammate Joey Logano . "I wasn’t looking to switch," Keselowski said. "If things would have gone the way they were supposed to go before Mark won that race at Phoenix, I would still be there."
Theriault, Cindric to take turns in BKR's third truck
Brad Keselowski Racing announced Thursday that it plans to field a third truck in two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races in May. BKR plans to field the No. 2 Ford for Austin Cindric on May 13 at Dover International Raceway and for Austin Theriault on May 20 at Charlotte Motor Speedway . The two will race alongside the Statesville, North Carolina-based team's two full-time drivers -- Daniel Hemric and Tyler Reddick . The 17-year-old Cindric is scheduled to make just his third Camping World Truck Series start. He was 25th (Martinsville) and 14th (Phoenix) driving BKR's No. 29 Ford in two appearances near the end of last season. "A track called the 'Monster Mile' shouldn't be taken lightly," Cindric said in a news release provided by the team. "They tell me that the two truck races that I was able to do last year at Martinsville and Phoenix were difficult tracks to figure out, and I believe Dover will be the same. As I haven't been able to test, I've been watching as much video as possible while reaching out to as many people as I can to pick their brain about what it takes to be fast at Dover. I'm just going in with no expectations, trying to absorb as much information as possible and have fun with it." Theriault, 22, will be making his second start of the year after placing a crash-related 27th in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway . He also made nine starts for BKR last season, recording two top-five finishes (Daytona, Texas). "I was really proud of the effort at Daytona and how strong our performance was, and I feel like Charlotte won't be any different," Theriault said. "I'm going there with the expectation to win. I know we will have a strong Ford F-150 race truck at Charlotte and we plan to perform well, just like we did earlier this year at Daytona. At the end of the day, we want to win, and we have all the resources here at BKR to do just that at Charlotte."
Sprint Cup qualifying order for Talladega
# Car Driver Team 1 7 Regan Smith Golden Corral Chevrolet 2 47 AJ Allmendinger Kroger/Hungry Jack/Crisco Chevrolet 3 48 Jimmie Johnson Lowe's Chevrolet 4 31 Ryan Newman Caterpillar Chevrolet 5 83 Matt DiBenedetto Dustless Blasting Toyota 6 46 Michael Annett Pilot Flying J Chevrolet 7 30 * Josh Wise Curtis Key Plumbing Chevrolet 8 32 Bobby Labonte Rimrock Devlin Ford 9 23 David Ragan Schluter Systems Toyota 10 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr Nationwide Chevrolet 11 2 Brad Keselowski Miller Lite Ford 12 43 Aric Almirola Fresh From Florida Ford 13 14 Ty Dillon (i) Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet 14 15 Clint Bowyer AccuDoc Solutions Chevrolet 15 5 Kasey Kahne Farmers Insurance Chevrolet 16 34 Chris Buescher # Love's Travel Stops/CSX-Play it Safe Ford 17 17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr Fifth Third Bank Ford 18 11 Denny Hamlin FedEx Express Toyota 19 19 Carl Edwards ARRIS Toyota 20 78 Martin Truex Jr Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Toyota 21 20 Matt Kenseth Dollar General Toyota 22 44 Brian Scott # Twisted Tea Ford 23 38 Landon Cassill FR8Auctions Ford 24 3 Austin Dillon Dow - Energy & Water/Intellifresh Chevrolet 25 98 * Cole Whitt RticCoolers.com Toyota 26 27 Paul Menard Moen/Menards Chevrolet 27 18 Kyle Busch Skittles Marvel Toyota 28 35 * David Gilliland Shaw's Southern Belle Seafood Ford 29 21 * Ryan Blaney # Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford 30 55 * Michael Waltrip Peak & BlueDEF Toyota 31 16 Greg Biffle Ford EcoBoost Ford 32 95 Michael McDowell Thrivent Financial Chevrolet 33 42 Kyle Larson Target Chevrolet 34 22 Joey Logano Shell Pennzoil Ford 35 13 Casey Mears GEICO Chevrolet 36 4 Kevin Harvick Busch Fishing Chevrolet 37 6 Trevor Bayne AdvoCare Ford 38 10 Danica Patrick Aspen Dental Chevrolet 39 41 Kurt Busch Monster Energy Chevrolet 40 24 Chase Elliott # NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet 41 1 Jamie McMurray McDonald's Chevrolet * Required to qualify on time, (i) Ineligible for driver points in this series
NASCAR.com's 2016 Daytona 500 predictions
Going into 2016's season opener, members of the NASCAR.com editorial team make predictions for who will head to Victory Lane for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway . Zack Albert Dale Earnhardt Jr .: Restrictor-plate racing is often finicky, but it's hard to go against a proven Daytona-winning driver with a stout car that goes where he points it. Kenny Bruce Dale Earnhardt Jr .: As much as I'd like to see a surprise winner, inside information tells me it's Dale Jr.'s to lose. Holly Cain Denny Hamlin : He is overdue in this race, at a place he races so expertly. Pat DeCola Kyle Busch : 'Rowdy' will start 2016 the way he closed out 2015 -- on top. His dominant showing in the second Can-Am Duel was no fluke, and he'll pick up his second win of Speedweeks on Sunday. RJ Kraft Denny Hamlin : Hard to pick against Dale Jr., but I will. Hamlin has had the speed during Speedweeks, won the Sprint Unlimited and has four straight top-six finishes at Daytona. Hamlin will snap JGR's 23-year drought in the Daytona 500 and give Toyota its first win in the "Great American Race." Maggie MacKenzie Joey Logano : The talk at the track has Dale Jr. and his "Amelia" car winning, but the 2015 Daytona 500 champ shouldn't be forgotten. Logano's been posting top speeds all week as he continues the strong momentum from his dominant '15 season. Brad Norman Joey Logano : "Sliced Bread" becomes the first back-to-back Daytona 500 winner since Sterling Marlin (1994-95), overpowering those Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas and, yes, even race favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr . Jessica Ruffin Dale Earnhardt Jr .: Having won half of the speedway races last season, Junior's always a top pick heading into a plate event. Tack on his Duel win Thursday and his love for his car, and you've got a recipe for Victory Lane. Taylor Starer Kyle Busch : Coming off the high of being the 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion, Kyle Busch is ready to add another accomplishment to his resume: a Daytona 500 win. The Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have all looked strong during Speedweeks, but Busch will be the one who brings Toyota its first "Great American Race" victory. Kathy Sheldon Joey Logano : Amelia's a great car, but the No. 22 almost had something for Dale Jr.'s speedy ride in the Can-Am Duels. Something crazy always happens at Daytona, and the defending winner looks like he can sneak through the trouble spots again. George Winkler Ryan Blaney : Let's pick the Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate to pull off the upset for the Wood Brothers. Fellow Fords in the Team Penske camp can give him the push he needs to make like Trevor Bayne and shock the world.
Fantasy Daytona 500 grand marshal: Who we'd want to give the command
RELATED: Griffey Jr. named grand marshal " John Cena to drive pace car Daytona 500 dignitaries are being named. Ken Griffey Jr. will be the honorary starter. John Cena will drive the pace car. It all got us thinking -- if we could pick anybody in the world, living or dead, to be the grand marshal for the "Great American Race," who would it be? Here are NASCAR.com's staff picks. Pat DeCola Abraham Lincoln -- I'll be honest (you know, like Abe), as cool as Lincoln is, I'm only picking him because I know he knows how to fill time in a pinch. Four score and seven rain delays ago ... RJ Kraft Christopher Walken -- The man has a unique and famous delivery ("More cowbell," anyone?) that is just begging for this spot. He has countless celebrity impersonators from Kevin Spacey to Kevin Pollak to Bradley Cooper but nothing matches the original. Maggie McKenzie Oprah Winfrey -- This one was an obvious choice thanks to her incredible intelligence, powerful presence and, most importantly, that signature voice. And who knows, maybe she’ll be the first commander to hand out gifts to the fans of some of her favorite things? Brad Norman Mel Blanc -- The "Man of a Thousand Voices" most famously known as Bugs Bunny also voiced such classic characters as Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Barney Rubble -- he'd put on quite a show ... as many characters. Jessica Ruffin Paul "Bear" Bryant -- What better person to give the command of the "Great American Race" than a man who embodies America's beloved game of college football? Bonus points if the Bear's hat matches Kyle Larson 's plaid paint scheme. Kathy Sheldon James Earl Jones -- He has the best voice in the history of recorded sound. I'm certain he could make it roar across Daytona International Speedway 's 180-acre infield and through the stands. And when Jones gives you a command, you follow it. Taylor Starer Beyoncé -- If you get the opportunity to incorporate Beyoncé into NASCAR, you take it. "Queen B" has got the pipes to take on the Daytona 500 command -- that's for sure -- and while she's there, might as well get her to sing the National Anthem. George Winkler Keith Richards -- Because even if we couldn't understand what he was saying it would be combined with a great guitar riff that would more than salvage the moment. Plus, chances are it would be way cooler than if Paul McCartney did i t . @nascarcasm Sean Penn -- Because then whatever international fugitive he brings with him can give the command along with him and then the authorities can capture him and it'll be a huge story.
NASCAR.com's Phoenix race predictions
Members of the NASCAR.com editorial team make their predictions for the final race of the Eliminator Round in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Phoenix International Raceway , which was renamed Jeff Gordon Raceway for Sunday's event ( Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 , 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM). Kevin Harvick has won the last four races at the 1-mile track. Can he be stopped from winning his fifth in a row? Zack Albert Kevin Harvick : Failing a blow-up or some other catastrophic outcome, it's hard to go against the chalk and the No. 4 team, which has led more than two-thirds of the laps in the last three Phoenix races. Expect Harvick to defend his 2014 crown with Phoenix as a launching pad. Kenny Bruce Kurt Busch . Starting on the front row, fastest in both Saturday practices and likely needing a win to advance to the Championship Round, the 41 gets it done. Brad Norman Kurt Busch . It's a dream scenario for Stewart-Haas Racing as Busch wins his way into the finale, where Kevin Harvick will join him to defend his title. George Winkler Jimmie Johnson : After crossing the finish line first at Texas, Johnson exclaimed, "We're back!" And who are we to argue with a six-time champion? When Johnson gets on one of his patented rolls, look out. "Six-Time" ties "The Intimidator" with win No. 76 from the pole. Kathy Sheldon Kevin Harvick . A win locks in his spot in the Championship 4 and the chance to defend his 2014 Sprint Cup title at Homestead. Bad luck already bit the No. 4 this round, so it will be smooth sailing for Harvick at Phoenix, where his prowess is unmatched lately. Pat DeCola Joey Logano : My Eliminator Round picks have been spot on thus far, so why not pick the driver who was perfect in the Contender Round to keep the streak alive? Logano is looking to rebound from two rough outings at Martinsville and Texas. He needs to win at Phoenix -- and he will. RJ Kraft Brad Keselowski : The Team Penske driver has been in a win-or-go-home spot before and come through successfully (see Talladega, 2014). A disappointing starting spot combined with his position in the standings will allow crew chief Paul Wolfe to be super aggressive with his calls to lead Keselowski to his desert destiny and win at Phoenix. Jessica Ruffin Kurt Busch : Busch has been consistently strong this weekend, running in the top three in practice and nabbing a front-row starting position. He's also in the same equipment as Phoenix pro Kevin Harvick , with all the motivation he needs in the form of a final four Chase spot -- and a chance at the title. Maggie MacKenzie Kevin Harvick : The undisputed King of Phoenix has an incredible seven wins at the 1-mile track and has emerged the victor in the last four races there. There’s no reason why Harvick won’t be able to make it eight trips to Victory Lane after coming off some strong runs at Martinsville (eighth) and Texas (third). With a career total of 1,202 laps led at Phoenix, expect "Happy" to dominate the leaderboard.
NASCAR.com's Texas race predictions
Members of the NASCAR.com editorial team make their predictions for the second race of the Eliminator Round in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Texas Motor Speedway ( AAA Texas 500 , 2 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN, SiriusXM). Zack Albert Kyle Busch : With four top fives in his most recent five Texas starts, Busch has Lone Star momentum that could carry him to Homestead's championship round. Expect the best Chase of his career to get that much better with six-shooters a-blazin' in Victory Lane. Kenny Bruce Kevin Harvick : The defending champ flexes his muscle and earns a shot at his second crown. Brad Norman Kevin Harvick : Forget all the talk about Harvick winning next week at Phoenix -- although he may do that, too -- to advance in the Chase. The defending series champ will earn his way back to Homestead with a dominant outing on Sunday. George Winkler Joey Logano : He had arguably the best car again last week before Matt Kenseth wrecked him, so provided Joey can stay focused within a media circus, he'll have a great chance at a track where he has won as recently as spring 2014. Kathy Sheldon Kyle Larson : Pressure's peaking among the Eliminator 8, creating a huge distraction. And Larson has top-10 finishes at two of his four career Sprint Cup races at Texas. Larson likes big, fast tracks, and that's Texas Motor Speedway . RJ Kraft Kyle Busch : The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has a solid history at Texas (he won there in 2013) and it's his best track left on the schedule. Look for "Rowdy" to join Jeff Gordon by locking up a Championship 4 spot. Pat DeCola Jimmie Johnson : In or out of title contention, a winless Jimmie Johnson in the Chase just isn't a thing that happens. The three-time defending victor of this race will add a fourth straight trip to Victory Lane and ride out of Fort Worth wearing yet another black hat. Taylor Starer Joey Logano : Logano is coming off a rough week at Martinsville, where his 37th-place finish dropped him to last in the Chase standings. This year's Daytona 500 winner is looking for redemption, along with a ticket to the Championship 4 Round. Maggie MacKenzie Brad Keselowski : The Team Penske driver has been racing under the radar throughout the Chase, but the AAA Texas 500 could change everything. Keselowski, who sits sixth on the Chase Grid, statistically has done well at Texas and earned a top-five result in the spring race.
NASCAR.com's 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion predictions
Going into the final race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup , members of the NASCAR.com editorial team make predictions for who will win the 2015 Sprint Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway ( Ford EcoBoost 400 3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM). Zack Albert Jeff Gordon : One last dose of No. 24 magic? With Hendrick Motorsports devoting all possible resources to sending the legendary driver off in championship style, Gordon is not only a sentimental pick, but a well-reasoned one for a fifth title in his career finale. Holly Cain Jeff Gordon : While Gordon would be the overwhelming sentimental pick, this is one of the toughest championship battles to decide. All four drivers have hugely emotional backstories. These four make this one of toughest title picks ever so I'll take the sentimental option and go Gordon. Kenny Bruce Jeff Gordon : Sure it would be a great story, but Gordon's shown the speed here this weekend to make contending for the championship more than just a fantasy. Pat DeCola Kevin Harvick : Miami is Harvick' s race (and title) to lose. With seven straight top-10 finishes at the track we know he's going to be at the front of the pack -- and, more importantly, in front of Kyle Busch , Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr . RJ Kraft Martin Truex Jr .: The clock will not strike midnight on this Cinderella story. The 78 team has been strong at intermediate tracks all year and Homestead is statistically Truex's best track. The single-car Furniture Row Racing team and Truex will have a crowning moment on Sunday. George Winkler Jeff Gordon : This is one of those times when you don't look at the stats and you pick with your gut. After all, who wants to be the guy who goes against Gordon and watches sadly as the legend walks off into the sunset with his fifth career Sprint Cup Series championship? Don't be that guy. Taylor Starer Kevin Harvick : My heart is telling me to choose Jeff Gordon as the 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion, but my head is telling me Harvick. The reigning champ is comfortable heading into the final race of the season and has proven to be as cool as a cucumber under Chase pressure. Brad Norman Martin Truex Jr .: The spotlight (rightfully) is on Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick , but Truex loves Miami and he’s been sneaky fast on intermediates all year. I predict he gets a break -- broken part for a competitor? slow late pit stop? -- and stealthily assumes the lead, then powers his way to a victory … and a championship. Jessica Ruffin Jeff Gordon : While his cars may not have possessed the speed of Kevin Harvick 's or reached Victory Lane as many times as Kyle Busch this season, Gordon has one major component on his side; momentum. The four-time champion will close out his career with a bang on Sunday with a fifth and final championship. Kathy Sheldon Kyle Busch : Pressure and equipment will be the two biggest factors on Sunday, but sheer will is right up there. Kyle Busch has seen his career flash before his eyes this year; race pressure pales in comparison. He fought hard to get back in the car, in Victory Lane and now in the Chase Championship 4. And Joe Gibbs Racing cars still have plenty of power. Maggie MacKenzie Kevin Harvick : Harvick is thirsty to defend his championship title and with an impressive 12 top 10s in 14 starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway , the wheelman for the No. 4 races hard here. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver is also coming off a run with back-to-back top-three results at Texas and Phoenix so despite having the worst qualifying seed out of the Championship 4, "Happy" will find a way to get out front -- and stay there.
NASCAR.com's Martinsville race predictions
Members of the NASCAR.com editorial team make their predictions for the first race of the Eliminator Round in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Martinsville Speedway ( Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 , 1:15 p.m. ET, NBCSN/Live Extra, MRN, SiriusXM). Zack Albert Denny Hamlin : Expect the No. 11 to prevail in his home state for Hamlin's sixth grandfather clock, denying the remaining Chasers an automatic berth in the Homestead championship finale. Kenny Bruce Jimmie Johnson : Johnson shares win record (eight) for active drivers at Martinsville with teammate Jeff Gordon . Bad fast in practice. No Chase pressure. In other words, everything to gain and nothing to lose. Brad Norman Joey Logano : Because why not? He's starting from the pole and has won three consecutive races. Make it four. George Winkler Dale Earnhardt Jr .: Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have more history on their side, but Junior will use the disappointment from last weekend as motivation to get his second grandfather clock (first for crew chief Greg Ives). Kathy Sheldon Jeff Gordon : The intensity is there, and so is the confidence at Martinsville, where he has eight career wins and a runner-up finish in this race last year. The four-time champion is serious about chasing down title number five. Jessica Ruffin Dale Earnhardt Jr .: Having just missed the next round of the Chase with a runner-up result at Talladega Sunday, Junior heads to Martinsville with something to prove -- and a fast race car, to boot. He’s also the reigning race winner and calls the paperclip oval one of his favorite tracks on the circuit. Taylor Starer Jeff Gordon : Martinsville's fall race is what Gordon has been waiting for. The four-time Sprint Cup champ doesn't plan on ending his lengthy career with a winless season or without scoring one more win at a track where he's had eight victories. Maggie MacKenzie Carl Edwards : With the recent Joe Gibbs Racing difficulties, Edwards is the team's biggest hope to snag the 2015 championship. He may not have a win at Martinsville, but the driver of the No. 19 Toyota has finished outside the top 10 only once thus far in the Chase. RJ Kraft Denny Hamlin : Yes, Hamlin is out of the Chase, but that doesn't mean he can't go out and get another win. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has one of the best cars this weekend as he eyes a sweep of the Martinsville races for the second time in his career. Pat DeCola Jeff Gordon : A winless final season just doesn't seem to fit the four-time champion's style. With more career victories at "The Paperclip" (eight) than any other track on his resume, you can book Gordon's trip to Victory Lane this weekend -- along with his spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead.
H2H: Should dirt track racing expand?
Eldora puts on another winner of a Trucks Series show Last week's visit to Eldora Speedway was the third consecutive year in which the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series raced on the half-mile dirt track. The 2015 event, which saw Christopher Bell hold off Bobby Pierce for the win, may have been the best race of the three. A good time is had by all each year, if Twitter reaction and turnout of stars is any indication. And we know Tony Stewart , owner of the Ohio facility, is interested in having stock cars grace his track. But is it a good idea? Should the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series or the NASCAR XFINITY Series host a race on dirt? Join NASCAR.com's Kathy Sheldon and Brad Norman in this debate, and leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Sheldon: Brad , you went to Eldora last week and have a first-hand account to share, but as someone watching on TV with most of NASCAR's fan base, I have two words: Heck yeah! Sliding, mud-slinging, back-to-our-roots racing at its finest came through again in the Wednesday night Truck Series race. At a time when tension flares between NASCAR's old guard fans and emerging generations and locations, dirt racing is an opportunity to showcase racing at its core, stripped down from all the rules packages and NASA-level tech that makes speedway racing thrilling to some old fashioned bumping, banging and racing that rewards the bold and brave drivers. Norman : You want a firsthand account of Eldora? I'll return your two words with two of my own: Awe. Some. Seriously, Eldora is a wonderful facility and the event was captivating. Magical, almost. That's why this should stay a once-a-year type of deal, Kathy. Drivers are split on this issue as well, but I agree with those like Austin Dillon (the event's first winner, mind you) that oversaturation is bad for the sport. Why make Eldora and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event less special? Why make it seem common? It's special, and there's nothing wrong with having a special event once a year. Sheldon: It's a good thought to keep things special, Brad , but I think we can have one dirt race a year in each series and still keep it special. We only have two road course races a year in Sprint Cup , and up until the latest Chase format, road course specialists often were brought in for those because they were so unique. Now many people are clamoring for a road race in the Chase. A dirt track sure would mix things up in the schedule, perhaps even giving a driver outside the usual suspects a shot at a Chase berth. Norman : I'm all for mixing things up, and you make some good points Kathy -- but I think the biggest follow-up question to your argument is also the biggest unknown. OK, let's have Sprint Cup and XFINITY on dirt. Where would the race be? Eldora? Hey, it's one of the best dirt track facilities in the region, probably the nation, and there's just no way it could support a Sprint Cup race. The infrastructure is simply not there, not to mention the seats. What about the haulers? The roads? If those are huge issues for Eldora -- one of the best -- then I don't think there's a dirt track in the world that could handle the crush. Sheldon: I have a venue suggestion: Birmingham International Raceway. It's been a horse track, a one-mile dirt oval, a half-mile dirt oval, a quarter-mile dirt oval and a five-eighths mile paved oval. NASCAR's premier series ran there in 1958 and 1961-68. The list of winners there: Fireball Roberts, Ned Jarrett, Jim Paschal, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison. It was home track to the Alabama Gang. Alas, the track was torn down in 2008-09, and a natatorium and track-and-field complex sits on the site now. But if Daytona can get a $400 million makeover, a big ol' track renovation is possible, too. If you build it, they will come! Norman : Sounds great! Now … who gets to tell a track president they are losing their date on the Sprint Cup calendar? I'd like to stay as far away from that one as possible. Because I think that's the final fallout piece. If NASCAR adds a race on dirt for the Sprint Cup Series or XFINITY Series, somewhere else has to go. Unless, of course, the sanctioning body is interested in adding more races to its calendar … in a time in which drivers think the number of races should scale back slightly. FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule