So, you’re thinking about tuning in to the last NASCAR race of the season, but aren’t sure what’s been going on for the entire length of the Chase. Great! Who’s actually in the championship, who should you pay attention to and why? We’ve got the short list.

Today, we’ll see the decision of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the retirement of a dude who’s been racing Cup cars since before Alanis King was born.

Of course, it’s the conclusion of the Chase: a wholly manufactured way to get eyeballs at the end of the season by ramping up the pressure to perform. Instead of basing a championship off points, wins or any other objective, simple measure of greatness that’s easy to track all season long, NASCAR went for a playoff.

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Points are involved, so drivers still have to perform better than others who’ve made it into the round to get into the Chase and advance into the next round. A win is an automatic advancement into the next round. NASCAR has a full explainer here if you’re curious how the final four we’re paying attention to today were picked.

Naturally, having drivers in the Chase racing alongside drivers who aren’t (who may or may have not been knocked out by those who are still in) leads to some, uh, interesting situations. Curiously, NASCAR ruled-by-penalty that messing with a Chase competitor when you’re out of contention is a big no-no, and that punts like Kenseth did to Logano are also an obvious safety risk. However, drama between Chase competitors and everybody else is something to watch out for.

Do you pay more attention to NASCAR’s other series more than Sprint Cup? Sit up and take notes. They’re thinking about bringing a Chase-style format to the Camping World Truck Series as well. Sure, the Chase prevents the “F1 is still on?” situation that Formula One fans are experiencing after their championship titles got decided early this year, but the Chase can also feel fake and contrived at times, as the winning the most races no longer translates into a season title.

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tl;dr—who are we following for this race, exactly? Here’s the rundown.

Kevin Harvick

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick is last year’s winner of the Sprint Cup, and you have to admit that the guy who’s really good at tracks like Homestead-Miami has a great shot at winning a season title that’s decided at Homestead-Miami.

However, Harvick’s a pretty old school NASCAR racer and isn’t without a trail of fights and drama. He and Joey Logano had the first heated exchange of the season in the pit lane of a pre-season exhibition race. Harvick shoving Jimmie Johnson was what I called “the official start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.” Call it a feature or a bug, but the Chase is kind of known for stressed-out drivers getting heated with each other as they try not to get eliminated from each round.

What is most likely to follow him into this season finale? A bit of bad will from Talladega. Several racers accused Harvick of starting a wreck intentionally on the race’s final restart in order to secure his position in the Chase.

While NASCAR found no evidence of wrongdoing on Harvick’s part, could one of the drivers eliminated after the “Contender” round of the Chase still ensure that Harvick doesn’t win today? While it’s plausible in theory, Talladega is a bit of a weirdo because it’s a big restrictor plate track, and fewer grudges get held over because everyone kind of accepts the bizarre nature of plate racing.

It’s NASCAR, though. Anything’s possible.

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Chase status: Competing for the Cup today

Other memorable moments of 2015: Harvick’s team was accused of illegally giving their tires a slow leak to relieve pressure as they heated up on track, but ultimately, only Ryan Newman’s tires were found with the cheat.

Jeff Gordon

It’s hard not to find a fan who doesn’t want Jeff to win on some level. For one, he definitely has the best helmet today. Look at the flames! (So cool.) Two, he’s a longtime fan favorite who’s retiring from full-time Sprint Cup racing after today.

Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports car has been struggling to find speed all season. His year started out with a run of bad luck. Gordon was looking like he’d be out of contention for one last Sprint Cup title until he finally won at Martinsville—in the last round of the Chase before the Homestead-Miami finale. Gordon’s consistently good driving kept him in contention until then, but to finally score a win was magical.

It looks like Gordon finally has a car worth competing for the Sprint Cup going into this race. Can Gordon get his fifth Cup championship? Expect many, many hugs and tears if he does. It would be one of the all-time feel-good warm fuzzy stories of 2015.

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Chase status: Competing for the Cup today

Other memorable moments of 2015: One epic tricycle beatdown, a pole record at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, an Indianapolis 500 pace car drive, an accidental love tap from Clint Bowyer in pit lane, and numerous rad farewell tributes.

Martin Truex Jr.

Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch may be the two best known underdog stories going into the season finale, but they’re also part of big mega-teams that are huge names in NASCAR.

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Truex, on the other hand, runs the only car for Furniture Row Racing, and he’s made it into the Chase. If you want an underdog story to follow, he’s it.

According to Motorsport.com, Truex has only qualified for the Chase twice in his ten seasons in NASCAR’s highest level championship. Both times, he finished 11th. He’s seen four different teams in the past seven years, but stability and the keen direction of rookie crew chief Cole Pearn have got him into the final round of NASCAR’s playoff this year.

Like Gordon, Truex is heading into the season ender with only one win for the season, but consistent results have got him here so far. Can he beat all the odds and eke out a better finish than the other three? We’ll see.

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Chase status: Competing for the Cup today

Other memorable moments of 2015: Provoking the wrath of Tony Stewart in an on-track battle with Aric Amirola, and punching through a tire wall at Sonoma.

Kyle Busch

If comeback stories are more your speed, it doesn’t get any better than what Kyle’s pulled off this year.

Busch broke his leg and foot in a gnarly Daytona Xfinity Series wreck, taking him out for the first eleven races of the Sprint Cup season. His car slid over slick grass and ultimately struck a stretch of barrier that wasn’t protected by an energy-absorbing barrier, prompting improved safety measures at tracks across the country.

NASCAR granted him eligibility for entry into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but Kyle had to score a win and make it into the Top 30 in points to do so. So, when he came back, he just kept winning.

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Busch entered the Chase with four wins in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. This is the first time he’s been in the season finale during his Sprint Cup career, and given the amount of catch-up he’s had to do to get there, I’d say he deserves a shot now more than ever.

Chase status: Competing for the Cup today

Other memorable moments of 2015: A memorable photo-op with Mister Horse, a continued crusade against the scourge of trackside grass, a stealth nut tap, and some Kyle vs. Kyle action at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin

What, you mean there’s still a race going on while there’s all this Chase brouhaha happening? Yes. Denny Hamlin just put his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry on pole for the Ford Ecoboost 400.

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Hamlin told Fox Sports:

It’s kind of bittersweet, knowing that the Chase always seems to set up for me. … I’d still like to win (the race), no doubt about it. Trust me, it’s a little bit more relaxing this time around, but I’d definitely trade my position with any one of those four guys.

That’s perhaps the least enthusiastic pole-winning statement I’ve ever read.

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Qualifying right behind Hamlin was Joey Logano, and behind him, Chase contender Kyle Busch. As for the other Chasers, Jeff Gordon qualified fifth, followed by Martin Truex Jr. in eleventh and Kevin Harvick in thirteenth.

Still, just because four dudes are duking it out for the Sprint Cup doesn’t mean that a “spoiler” who’s not in the Chase won’t win the race today. Granted, because it’s a four-way shootout and not an elimination round, nabbing it from a Chaser means a lot less.

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I feel a little sad contemplating that thought. Meaningless. Hopeless. Full of despair. It’s as if we’ve ramped up excitement over four drivers at the end at the expense of the rest of the field. Denny, if you wanna eat mac and cheese, watch Days of Thunder and have a good sob after the race is done, lemme know.

Chase status: Eliminated after Contender 12 round

Other memorable moments of 2015: Briefly piloting an aircraft at the Sprint Unlimited race, colliding with Danica Patrick twice in one week, causing a huge pile-up at Daytona, Michael Waltrip accidentally dropping taco dribble all over his car, a great sneaky ninja pass at Pocono, hood-flip things with his crew at Watkins Glen, racing with a torn ACL, and being pretty unhappy about Harvick’s wreck at Talladega.

Matt Kenseth

Guess who’s back? Back again. Shady’s back. Tell a friend.

If there’s one potential drama llama everyone will be watching, it’s Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth. Kenseth received a two-race suspension for intentionally wrecking out Team Penske’s Joey Logano at Martinsville following an incident where Logano spun Kenseth out at Kansas. It’s perhaps the defining story of this year’s Chase, as this duel was at least partially responsible for neither driver making it into the final four.

Like Harvick, Kenseth is an old school, take-no-one’s-BS driver who sometimes lets his temper get into his racing. Of course, getting suspended for two races after Martinsville meant that Kenseth gets to do one last race before the year is over: the season finale at Homestead-Miami.

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Of course, he’s had to meet with NASCAR chairman Brian France and on-track nemesis Joey Logano before today’s race, so to say he’s on a bit of a short leash right now would be an understatement. Kenseth told NASCAR:

Everything will be fine there. I wish none of it would have happened obviously. There’s probably certain things we’ll never totally agree on, but I think long term it probably will be fine, and I think we will work it all out.

Logano, too, joked to reporters at Homestead-Miami after qualifying, as quoted by NASCAR:

We haven’t had enough of this yet?

[The meeting] was good. NASCAR had us sit down and talk it out a little bit and I thought that was good for us to do.

Even Brian France agrees that the conversations have been constructive. NASCAR quotes him as telling the Associated Press in a phone interview:

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What we were coming down here to a championship weekend, and I wanted to make sure that that matter was behind us with Matt, with Joe Gibbs and so on. I’m assured that it is. We had a good conversation about what had happened and what the thinking was or whatever you want to call Matt’s actions, and we talked about that. And it was a good conversation.

I don’t expect a lot of trouble out of Kenseth, to be honest—but that doesn’t mean that we won’t be watching out for it anyway.

Chase status: Eliminated after Contender 12 round

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Other memorable moments of 2015: Weaving through wrecked traffic like a boss during the Sprint Unlimited race, winning a fuel economy race at Pocono, raising some eyebrows about restart rule enforcement, and possibly taking up voodoo.


There’s your race. Homestead-Miami may not be a particularly unique or exciting track on the schedule, but it’s the one they’ve chosen for the season finale—and there’s more than enough happening on and around the track to make it worth the watch.

The race starts today at 3:00 p.m. ET, provided there’s no rain delay just kidding, there’s a rain delay.

Start time TBD, but they are drying the track as we speak.

Photo credits: Getty Images


Contact the author at stef.schrader@jalopnik.com.