HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The three drivers that had cornered the season-long market in the win column were deserving co-favorites heading into Sunday’s championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The Joey Logano vs. the “Big 3” Goliath story line was an overriding theme.
In the end, Logano turned back the challenges from Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who finished second through fourth, respectively, in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400. The trio combined for 20 wins in the 36-race season, but came up just short of hoisting the Monster Energy Series trophy for a second time in their careers.
Truex lacked enough oomph after a late-race restart to catch Logano. Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 team nearly converted on a pit-strategy Hail Mary. And Harvick led the second-most laps (58) but lamented a No. 4 Ford that faded as conditions shifted from daytime to nightfall.
Truex was vying for a second straight crown in the final event for Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 team. Last season, he outdistanced Busch by less than a second to savor his first series title; this year, he was 1.725 seconds shy of the title at the checkered flag.
“I just needed time. That’s all I needed,” said Truex, who surrendered the lead to Logano for the final time in the 256th of 267 laps. “They were faster than us for 15, 20 laps all day long. It was like the reverse scenario of last year, you know? Last year, we took advantage of the short-run car at the end and the 18 should’ve won the race. Tonight, we should’ve won the race and they took advantage of the short-run car. I don’t know what else we could’ve done, honestly.
MORE: Truex: ‘We had it’
“We worked our guts out all weekend just to get here. I told you earlier that just to get here, we showed a lot of people up and made ’em eat crow and that felt good. To come here and almost upset the field and almost win it back to back was really awesome.”
Harvick was the slowest of the Championship 4 throughout the weekend’s preliminary practices and qualifying, but adjustments quickly put his Stewart-Haas Racing entry into contention. Harvick was without his regular crew chief Rodney Childers, who served the second event of a two-race penalty at Homestead, but interim wrench Tony Gibson filled in admirably with a veteran’s guile atop the pit box.
Harvick spent the bulk of his time up front during the early going, winning Stage 1 and finishing a close second in Stage 2. But Harvick never led again after the final stage set sail.
“We didn’t make a lot of big changes, we made a lot of small changes, and the car was definitely better,” Harvick said. “But like I say, when it got dark, we just lost the rear grip and couldn’t get off the corner and was having trouble turning in the corner. Just the balance was really good until it was dark outside, and we just never could get the rear grip back to where we needed to, and I couldn’t take off.”
For Busch, the run-up to Sunday’s finale was dominated by pit-stall talk and how the team of pole-winning stablemate Denny Hamlin ceded the No. 1 box to lift Busch’s championship hopes. Once the race started, that first box was the site of a pair of hiccups for the No. 18 team that cost Busch ground. When the final pit stop rolled around, Busch’s crew held serve with quick pit work that atoned for previous miscues.
Busch’s first lead of the day came late as crew chief Adam Stevens opted for an alternate pit strategy, delaying the No. 18’s final pit stop in an attempt to gain track position with an advantageous caution flag. Busch and Co. got it when David Ragan, Brad Keselowski and Daniel Suarez all came together with 20 laps left, but the team was unable to capitalize for the final sprint to the finish.
“We were so bad tonight on the race track and on pit road that nothing was kind of going our way,” said Busch, the 2015 champion. “So it was just not all there the way that we needed it to, and sometimes it all falls into place and falls your way, and other times you’ve got to be able to go out there and go earn it, and we didn’t have either tonight.”
Stevens said of his late-race call that “it wasn’t so much bold as it was desperation. All the guys we were racing were already in front of us, so they weren’t going to do the same thing as them and get in front of them, so we had to do something different. And we got the caution we needed, but we just didn’t have the car we needed to hang onto it.”