Ge­orge Díaz: How NASCAR’s Cham­pi­onship 4 stack up.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - Ge­orge Diaz Sentinel Colum­nist gdiaz@or­lan­dosen­tinel.com

NASCAR’s long and wind­ing road to Homestead has fea­tured some odd twists and turns, bumps and bruises, and the sad re­al­iza­tion that Dale

Earn­hardt Jr. is say­ing adios.

Ju­nior’s re­tire­ment from Cup rac­ing af­ter 19 sea­sons on the cir­cuit un­doubt­edly will make this year’s final ride a sen­ti­men­tal jour­ney on Sun­day near Mi­ami, but the most im­por­tant busi­ness of the day in­volves four other drivers: Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Har­vick, Kyle Busch

and Brad Ke­selowski.

The last drivers stand­ing in line for the sea­son ti­tle in­clude three pre­vi­ous cham­pi­ons and Truex, who hap­pens to be the most dom­i­nant driver of the 2017 sea­son with seven vic­to­ries in 35 races. If we carry that Cham­pi­onship 4 pro­file to in­clude per­son­al­i­ties, Truex also wins the good-guy pop­u­lar­ity con­test run­ning away.

Har­vick, Busch and Ke­selowski each has an edge to his game. That’s also a nice way of say­ing each of them can come across as a pre­ten­tious jerk at times. Not that there’s any­thing wrong with that. It’s good for busi­ness.

There are bonus points in play as well: None of those three guys like each other much and have the spats and the cuss words and the ker­fuf­fles to doc­u­ment it all.

“If you ask Brad, he can fix the world’s prob­lems; that’s all there is to it,” Busch said ear­lier this sea­son, shoot­ing back af­ter Ke­selowski sug­gested that the Toy­ota teams — which in­clude Busch and Truex — had an un­fair com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage.

It should make for a fes­tive Sun­day af­ter­noon in South Florida — a lit­tle bump and grind op­tional — but the heart of the mat­ter re­mains on how the scuf­fle on the track plays out.

So I’ll split hairs and give you the two guys most likely to end up with a cham­pi­onship sip of cham­pagne: Truex or Har­vick.

There is some­thing spe­cial about Truex. Be­yond those seven wins, he has 18 top 5s, 25 top 10s and 2175 laps led — all se­rieslead­ing num­bers. Truex’s av­er­age fin­ish in the other eight play­off races is 2.37 if you take away the crash­fest out­lier in Tal­ladega.

“We’re all ex­cited about go­ing to Homestead with the op­por­tu­nity of win­ning the cham­pi­onship,” Truex said af­ter fin­ish­ing third in Phoenix this past week­end. “This is what we set out to do at the be­gin­ning of the year.”

While the pa­per trail leads to Truex, the wild­card hunch is all about Har­vick. His No. 4 Ford hasn’t been dom­i­nant all sea­son, In fact, there were quite a bit of strug­gles as the Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing team made a man­u­fac­turer’s switch from Chevro­let to Ford.

But af­ter a vic­tory in Texas two weeks ago, Har­vick has worked his way into the cham­pi­onship con­ver­sa­tion very loudly.

“Ev­ery­body is point­ing their fin­gers at Truex as the guy,” said Larry McReynolds, NASCAR an­a­lyst for Fox Sports. “And un­der­stand­ably so. … If you look at per­for­mance num­bers, Truex has to be the fa­vorite.

“I tend to put Har­vick right be­side Truex. When the play­offs started I prob­a­bly couldn’t do that. Ob­vi­ously they were suf­fer­ing from hav­ing the blues mak­ing the change from Chevy to Ford. When they won that race in Texas and drove right by the 78 car [Truex], that made a pretty strong state­ment.”

Yes, sir, it did. Har­vick won the sea­son ti­tle in 2014, a year when he won five races. He only has two vic­to­ries in 2017 but has fin­ished no worse than fifth in his last three races.

“When he gets locked in like that, he’s dan­ger­ous,” co-owner Tony Ste­wart said in Texas. “That’s some­thing the 78 team should be wor­ried about in a cou­ple of weeks. … It’s like dan­gling meat in front of a tiger. You do that with this crew and this driver, there’s some good things that can hap­pen.”

Great things even. Gen­tle­men, start your en­gines, and watch out for the No. 4 be­cause he may be run­ning on tiger juice.

Kenseth’s cap­per

The NASCAR Na­tion would be re­miss in not of­fer­ing a final tip of the hat to Matt Kenseth.

His vic­tory at Phoenix was truly one of the great mo­ments of the 2017 sea­son. The 20-year Cup veteran isn’t get­ting kicked to the curb, but close enough. He doesn’t have a ride in 2018 af­ter he was bounced from Joe Gibbs Rac­ing in fa­vor of 21-year-old Erik Jones.

It wasn’t per­for­mance­based. Kenseth made the 16-driver play­offs this sea­son. It was a money move, driven by 45-year-old Kenseth’s high salary against a lack of spon­sor­ships mov­ing for­ward.

So if this is good­bye, the vic­tory was a sweet way to close out a great ca­reer.

“Yeah, it’s re­ally not de­scrib­able,” the 2003 sea­son cham­pion said af­ter the race. “With only two [laps] left, I didn’t think we prob­a­bly had a good chance of get­ting back to vic­tory lane. It’s been I don’t know how many races — some­body’s prob­a­bly go­ing to tell me tonight — but it’s been at least 50 or 60, so it’s been a long time. We’ve had a lot of close ones. Just felt like it was never meant to be and to­day it was meant to be.”

ROSS D. FRANKLIN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Martin Truex Jr. has a cir­cuit-lead­ing 7 wins this sea­son as he pur­sues his 1st Cup cham­pi­onship Sun­day near Mi­ami.

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