AVONDALE, Ariz. — After nine months of predictions, speculation, 35 races and a few surprises sprinkled in, NASCAR has whittled its championship field down to its purest form.
There are four drivers left, all tied in points. Whoever finishes the highest at Homestead-Miami Speedway next week will be the champion.
But while the contenders are set — Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards — the favorite is not.
After all, how can anyone really pick one standout among them?
Johnson will get the most attention, of course — and deservedly so. He is attempting to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most championships in NASCAR history (seven) and is still in peak form with perhaps the best crew chief ever on his pit box.
It would be quite the year for Johnson to pull off such an achievement, because Hendrick Motorsports was having one of its worst seasons up until the Chase for the Sprint Cup began. It had lost Jeff Gordon to retirement, saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. sidelined for the rest of the season with a concussion in mid-July and went months without a win (or even getting seriously close to one).
After all, most of the season was dominated by Joe Gibbs Racing, which ended up with two of its drivers in the Chase. Busch and Edwards will be the first pair of teammates to compete in the elimination-style championship, and the dynamics should be interesting to watch. Both are highly competitive and want the title badly for themselves, but that’s not doable.
Those drivers have their own story lines. Busch is the one-time brat who matured into a father and champion, overcoming a broken leg and foot last year to win his first title while running a partial schedule. And Edwards is the sponsor-friendly pitchman who backflips off his car and has endured championship heartbreak before, particularly in 2011, when he lost the title on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart.
Now Edwards could win his first Cup trophy in what will be Stewart’s final Cup race.
And then there’s Logano, who put a Ford back into title contention, much to the delight of the manufacturer and championship weekend sponsor. Logano is 26 and now has made the final four twice. With experience under his belt this time, Logano might win his first title — and with a long career ahead of him, perhaps one day challenge Johnson’s modern day mark.
Then again, Johnson just might be adding to it next Sunday.
But who knows? It could also be Busch’s second or Edwards’ first. There’s really no way to handicap the race, which is by design. Any of them could excel and dominate the race, but any of them could also fall victim to a crash, blown tire or mechanical failure.
That’s the nature of a one-race playoff with everything on the line. Once again, the only sure thing about Homestead is there are no sure things.
Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck