There will be no way to improve on last year's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. NASCAR got the finish they were looking for with all four playoff contenders crossing under the checkers in the top four positions. The race had a balance of domination and strategy, making it the ultimate team collaboration.
In the end, Joey Logano and his team made the right call and had enough speed to hold off the challengers - making him the fifth different winner of the Championship Race and the fifth different driver to hoist the Cup after Kevin Harvick won in 2014, Kyle Busch in 2015, Jimmie Johnson in 2016, and Martin Truex Jr. in 2017.
NASCAR almost had a perfect finish in 2017 with three of the playoff contenders in the top four. Truex's win was followed by Busch in second and Harvick in third. Kyle Larson in third and Chase Elliott in fifth were the only non-playoff drivers in the top five. The fourth contender, Brad Keselowski finished seventh.
Because of the recent domination of the playoff contenders as well as the strength of the top non-playoff drivers, everyone in the NASCAR Fantasy Live games is going to have a similar lineup this week. That will put a huge premium on subtle differences and bonus points.
Meanwhile, there is an intense battle brewing for first and third in the NBC Broadcasters league with Steve Letarte holding an 11-point advantage over Kelli Stavast for the top spot. Marty Snider and Dale Jarrett are separated by one point in the battle for third, while yours' truly rounds out the top five.
Playoff: Kevin Harvick
A couple of weeks ago we were prepared to take a pass on Harvick at Homestead. There was even a little concern that he would qualify as a playoff driver given the modest performances in the first two rounds. Despite running just on the cusp of 10th for much of those races, he surged when necessary and scored top-10 finishes. He looked like the Harvick of old at Texas and ran strong at Phoenix. With his rhythm reestablished this season, his five-race top-five streak at Homestead and 11 consecutive top-10s makes him a driver impossible to disregard.
Playoff: Kyle Busch
Busch was the worst of the playoff drivers in last year's edition of the Ford EcoBoost 400; he finished fourth. The battle among the top four was intense. That was the fourth consecutive race on this track in which Busch finished sixth or better. In his last seven Homestead races, he finished seventh or better six times. The final position between these four will come down to either track position or who has made the right decision about a short or long run car. Neither of those things is particularly predictable.
Non-Playoff: Joey Logano
Even though Logano's championship winning race last year was ultimately due to his correct guess as to whether to set the car up for a long or short run, it does not diminish his recent strength on this track. Since 2015, the worst he has finished at Homestead was sixth in 2017; his other two efforts ended in fourth-place finishes. Logano has a lot to prove this week. He feels like he should be part of the championship battle and is going to put the frustration of not being able to defend his title to good use.
Non-Playoff: Chase Elliott
The law of averages says that Elliott has to be done with his bad fortune. A mistake at Martinsville by the crew and at Texas by the driver had him in a must-win situation at Phoenix. In the Bluegreen Vacations 500k, it would seem that his calamity was due to luck or fate - or at least something out of the control of either the driver or team. They should have exhausted all the ways that Elliott can lose and he should be able to contend for a third straight finish of seventh or better at Homestead.
Playoff: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex lacks the long streaks of Harvick or Busch, so it is easier to place them at the top of the handicap order. If one limits their view to the last two races, however, Truex has been virtually untouchable. He won the 2017 championship by having the best car in the final segment of the Ford 400 and bettering Busch in a back-and-forth battle. Last year he had the best car on long runs, but a caution on Lap 248 set up the right scenario for Logano to take the championship. This year, Truex should easily contend for another top-four finish, but Harvick and Busch still seem safer.
Non-Playoff: Kyle Larson
Last year Larson was easily one of the top non-playoff driver picks. He entered the Ford 400 with three straight top-fives on this track that included a second-place finish to Johnson in 2016 and a third in 2017. He ran well in the first half of the race to finish second in Stage 1 and win Stage 2, but ultimately it was a 13th-place finish that went into the record books. Now he has an even number of results in the teens as top-fives and that gives us a momentary pause.
Until the cars hit the track this weekend, all one really has to go on are the stats. Hamlin won last week and he's been able to pull out victories when needed, but frankly his record at Homestead leaves a lot to be desired compared to the other three contenders. He has two wins on this track in 2009 and 2013, but since then his strongest effort netted only a seventh-place finish in 2014 and a best of ninth since then. Since the other three playoff drivers should challenge for a top-three finish, Hamlin is left wanting.
Stage Wins This Year (16 drivers)
Kyle Busch (11), Joey Logano (11), Martin Truex Jr. (8), Kevin Harvick (6), Denny Hamlin (6), Chase Elliott (5), Kyle Larson (5), Brad Keselowski (4), Kurt Busch (3), Ryan Blaney (2), Austin Dillon (2), Ty Dillon (2), William Byron (2), Aric Almirola (2), Jimmie Johnson (1), and Clint Bowyer (1).