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Matt Sullivan | Getty Images
Matt Sullivan | Getty Images

From life-altering championships to absolute heartbreak, anything can happen at Miami

When Denny Hamlin straps into his car at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday for the championship-deciding season finale, one of the last people he will talk to before the race starts will be crew chief Chris Gabehart. And truth be told, Hamlin will probably listen more than he talks.

Just before the cars roll onto the starting grid, Gabehart will give his driver – the only one of the Championship 4 without a title – a rousing speech, as he does before every race. If anybody else talked to Hamlin the way Gabehart does, Hamlin would see it as a ploy or as part of a shtick, and he wouldn’t buy it. Not so with Gabehart.

“His confidence in me is unwavering,” says Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. “He finds a way to make it relate and make you believe it.”

And Hamlin believes for good reason: He has set career bests in top fives, top 10s and average finish. He has six wins, including one in the Daytona 500 and one in last Sunday’s win-or-be-eliminated race in Phoenix.

No word yet on what pearls of wisdom Gabehart might drop on Hamlin before he battles Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick for the championship. But with the numbers Hamlin and Gabehart have put up in just one year together, it’s a safe bet that he will continue the pre-race tradition.

RELATED: Why Denny will win title

It’s also a safe bet Hamlin will peel out of pit lane inspired.

And that will be the last predictable thing that happens all day.

Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images
Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images

When NASCAR started the playoff format in 2004, in which the top 10 drivers had their points reset for a 10-race shootout for the championship, anticipation for an intense championship battle was sky high. When five drivers entered the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a chance to win what is now known as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, nobody knew what to expect.

Fifteen years later, that’s still true. The format has changed – now 16 drivers make the 10-race playoffs, 12 are eliminated, and the final race is a best-finisher-wins-the-championship battle among four drivers. But the what-craziness-will-happen-in-Miami? anticipation remains.

From Kurt Busch’s wheel coming off in 2004 to Jimmie Johnson getting a hole punched in the nose of his car in 2006 to Tony Stewart dropping to the back of the field twice in 2011, the eventual champions have faced no small amount of obstacles.

Since the best-finisher-wins-the-championship format began in 2014, the champion has won the final race every season. Joey Logano led a race-high 80 laps last year to take the championship; he’s the only driver in the playoff era to lead the most laps, win the final race and win the title. But final performances by champions haven’t always been stellar. Brad Keselowski (2012), Johnson (2008) and Stewart (2005) finished 15th and won the Cup anyway.

Throw in bad pit stops (too many to name), lightning-fast pit stops (same), desperate late-race searches for faster lines (Martin Truex Jr. in 2017) and thrilling late restarts (Kevin Harvick in 2014 and Johnson in 2016, among others) and everything that could happen, has.

All of which adds up to this: Nobody knows what will happen this weekend.

–   –   –

Teams sometimes tell themselves the season-ender at Miami is a race just like any other. But that’s a big fat lie, and anybody who has ever been in the Championship 4 knows it. Anxiety swirls over everything, like clouds on a mountain top. Fans and media desperate for late-breaking insight smother the garage in a dense layer of fog. The competitor who best finds his way through will hoist the big trophy on Sunday.

“Trying to think while you’ve got 50 cameras pointed at you, and those distractions, that was the biggest thing to me,” says Rodney Childers, crew chief for Harvick now and when he won the championship in 2014, the first year of the current format.

Amid that chaos, Childers found peace in having the fastest car. That made his decision-making easier. He didn’t have to take any risks or big swings to try to catch up to the competition. They were doing that to catch up to him. “Everything went right. I never felt confused or felt that I didn’t know what I should do on certain pit stops,” he said.

Which is not to say he knew his decisions would work out.

Patrick Smith | Getty Images
Patrick Smith | Getty Images

The most crucial one came during a pit stop on Lap 249 of 267. Leader Denny Hamlin, one of the Championship 4 drivers, stayed out. Ryan Newman took two tires. Childers thought to himself, They’re going to get run over staying out on old tires. Taking four tires at Homestead is always the right decision, even more so with the championship on the line AND when the guys in front of him didn’t.

“We had had a really fast car all year,” Childers said. “I knew if we could put it in Kevin’s hands and put him on offense instead of defense, we were going to be a lot better off.”

Harvick restarted 12th with 15 laps to go – that’s pretty far back with not a lot of time to get to the front. “I was like, ah, this might not work out,” Childers said. “But we weren’t leading the race to begin with. We were going to have to do something different. I knew if we ended up getting a couple cautions, we would be in the catbird seat.”

MORE: Every Harvick victory

Harvick moved up five positions, to seventh, before a caution on Lap 254. He was in the lead for the final restart on Lap 261. He pulled away from Newman, who restarted alongside him, to win the race and the championship.

“I remember just waiting until he came off of Turn 4 to take the checkered flag,” Childers said. “It’s a crazy emotional time, that last lap. Once you take that white flag, and you know that even if the caution comes out, you’ve won the championship. So many things running through your head. It’s pretty nuts.”

After the race, Harvick told ESPN: “I was just going to hold the pedal down and hope for the best.” That sounded like an exaggeration. But Childers found video of Harvick’s in-car camera feed of that race. He has watched it multiple times and what strikes him is not what he sees but what he hears. The audio reveals Harvick did not fully lift his foot off the accelerator, even as he entered the corners. “You’re like, how in the world did he do that? He pretty much ran wide open,” Childers said. “That’s just something you don’t do at Homestead.”

Unless the championship is at stake.

Because it’s not a normal weekend.

–   –   –

“Everyone is so spooled up. You see it in the garage, you see it in the competitors, the sponsors, the PR people – everybody is on pins and needles the whole time, from first practice to qualifying to when they drop the checkered flag.”

So says Al Garcia, who knows that pressure intimately. He is president of the track now and has worked there since 1995. It’s his job to put on a good show in the most intense race of the season, when the entire American motorsports community is laser-focused on his track. “We want to make darn sure that everything that is under our control has been checked and double-checked and triple-checked,” Garcia said. “I always preach the mantra: Mistakes are OK, mistakes happen, we’re all human. But let’s make brand-new mistakes. You can’t make the same mistakes over and over.”

MORE: Every Miami winner

He focuses on the three Ts – an approach he learned from Bill France Jr., the son of NASCAR’s founder who served as NASCAR’s CEO from 1972 until 2000. “He used to always tell me, ‘Al, they’ve got all these people, and they’ve got all these consultants and marketing and studies and all this brand stuff. But it’s simple. It’s tickets, it’s traffic, and it’s toilets, in that order. The rest of it, don’t worry about it,’ ” Garcia says.

In the middle of the 2011 race – a battle between Stewart and Carl Edwards – Garcia had to stop watching and start working.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

At that time, he was the vice president of operations, which meant traffic and toilets were his responsibility. A rain delay sent fans out of their seats and into the midway and bathrooms, which needed to be serviced at a time they would normally have been empty.

Meanwhile, Stewart and Edwards forged a real-time legend, a where-were-you-when? race that was historically amazing even as it was happening. Stewart drove from the back of the field to the front, twice. During the second march through the field, Stewart radioed his crew: “This is going to make it that much more satisfying when we come back and kick (Edwards’) ass.”

Stewart, who passed a stunning 118 cars that day, didn’t kick Edwards’ ass, not exactly, at least. Stewart won the race, Edwards finished second and led the most laps, and the two of them ended the season tied in points, the only time in NASCAR history that has happened. Stewart won the tiebreaker on the strength of his five wins versus Edwards’ one.

No less an authority than A.J. Foyt – Stewart’s hero and one of the greatest drivers in racing history – said, “I think Tony drove the best race of his life.”

Nobody would argue with that. Said Stewart after the race: “If this doesn’t go down as one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don’t know what will.”

–   –   –

The battle between Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch in 2017 is on that list, too.

Before the race started, Truex had already reeled off the most dominant performance of the new playoff format and arguably of the playoff era.

You’d have to go all the way back to 1992 and owner-driver Alan Kulwicki’s unlikely championship to find an underdog rising to the top like Truex. In recent memory, no driver’s title was met with such widespread enthusiasm as Truex’s.

And not just because he dominated all season but because of what he overcame in the process. He lost his ride with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2013 and struggled through a terrible 2014 with Furniture Row Racing. But late that season, his relationship with crew chief Cole Pearn clicked. Truex won one race in 2015 and four in 2016. That set the stage for 2017, in which he led the series in every major category. His eight wins were more than the rest of his career combined at the time.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

His longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the midst of that horrible 2014 season and had a recurrence in 2017. On top of that, team owner Barney Visser had a heart attack in 2017; he survived but doctors barred him from attending the final race.

Truex started out the race uncharacteristically slow. But he found speed as the race progressed, setting up an insta-legend battle with Busch. He said the biggest challenge he faced was holding off a clearly faster Busch. Truex did that by experimenting with his line until he found a fast one.

PHOTOS: Truex Jr., Sherry through the years

“Running up the against the wall there, you just got to be perfect, so we had to run 36 (laps) in the last run and just had to not make any mistakes at all,” he said. “Thirty-six laps as hard as you can possibly go and never make a mistake, that was hell of a challenge. But it felt good to be able to make it happen.”

The struggles earlier in his career prepared him to endure the stress of that final run. “Before 2014, I know I couldn’t have (done it),” he says. “I would have been probably spun out a bit, nervous as all hell. But I was like, OK, just got to find something. Just got to find a little bit. And I found it, and it was like, OK, here we go, I’ve got this. Start clicking them off, and we got to about five to go, and I was like, This is working pretty good. Just don’t screw up, dummy.

He didn’t, and his post-race celebration was among the most emotional the sport has ever seen. “I was overcome. I took the checkered flag and I was just junk. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t think,” he said after the race. “I had no idea what to do. I was bawling like a little kid. It was insane, and I don’t even know why. All the things I’ve been through flashed through my head. All the people that have got me here flashed through my head. It was just more than I could handle. But it felt pretty damned good.”

–   –   –

In 2006, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus were in their fifth season together. They had finished in the top five in the previous four and been in championship contention deep into each of them. Their failure to win a title weighed on both of them and threatened to fracture their relationship before it could blossom into the historically great tandem it eventually became.

After the 2005 season, team owner Rick Hendrick called the two of them into his office and fed them milk and cookies. He told them if they acted like children, he was going to treat them like children.

In 2006, they raced like grown-ups. The No. 48 team won the season-opening Daytona 500 (even with Knaus suspended) and the Brickyard 400 and spent the entire regular season in the top three in points. A bad start to the playoffs left them deep in the field. Then they roared back with a win and four second-place finishes to enter Homestead with the points lead. They had to finish 12th to take home their first title.

Rusty Jarrett | Getty Images
Rusty Jarrett | Getty Images

“That’s not an easy feat,” Knaus said. “At that point, our main focus was to just stay ahead of, or stay in close proximity to, the 17 car (Matt Kenseth, who was second in points). There’s a lot of stress with that – stress on the driver, stress on the crew chief, stress on the pit crew, stress on the team. There’s no such thing as coasting through a championship race.”

And the 48 team did not coast through this one. Early in the race, Johnson ran over debris, which punched a hole in his car’s nose. Atop the pit box, Knaus thought, oh no, not again … or perhaps a more colorful version of that.

“One thing our teams have done over the years is reacted to adversity and maintained our composure well,” Knaus said. “We repaired the damage to the best of our ability. We put some tires on it. And we got out there and got racing again.”

Which is not to say that was the end of the struggle. Johnson still had to drive from the back of the field to the front. And stay there.

“If you’re in a situation like that, and you have adversity show up, it just ratchets up the intensity to one more level,” Knaus said. “You’re just stacking pennies, waiting for the tower to fall. But fortunately enough, we were strong and everybody did a great job, and we were able to pull it off.”

From the cockpit, Johnson felt less stress about the nose’s hole than Knaus did. He barely knew it was there. The car’s handling didn’t change, so he didn’t worry much about it. The stress for Johnson came later as his car slowed down relative to the field.

“I remember my stomach being in a knot. I literally thought I was going to have an ulcer,” he said.

VIDEO: Looking back on Jimmie’s fifth title

He’s a seven-time champion now. He was a zero-time champion then and worried he was frittering away his last chance at a title. He thought he’d go down as the guy who came close but never won. “I physically felt it in my stomach. I had heartburn the whole weekend. I don’t ever have heartburn,” he said. “My gut system was stressed and messed up as a result. I can remember as the race wore on, that intensity kicking in, that hurting even more, my heart rate being really elevated, being short of breath. There were physical ailments of fear of losing this championship.”

Through that, Knaus kept close watch on the hole in the nose. He had told the crew to use bright orange tape to cover it, so he would be able to see the tape after the sun went down. If the tape was intact, he knew their championship hopes were, too. In 2006, that bright orange tape heralded a championship for Johnson and Knaus.

In 2004, bright orange tape signaled their defeat.

They entered the final race that year battling with Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to be the first champion of the playoff era.

When Busch’s tire came off early in the race and bounded onto the track, Johnson thought the championship was his to lose. “I just assumed the damage was going to be so bad that his car’s performance would be way off,” Johnson said. “As the race went on, I didn’t see him. I started to believe, after an hour or so of racing, that it was ours.”

During a late restart, Johnson looked in his mirror and saw orange tape, which he recognized as being on Busch’s car. At the same time, Knaus told him over the radio that Busch had crept from a low of 28th back into the championship hunt.

On the final restart, a green-white-checkered, Johnson passed two cars by going three wide. Busch was stuck in traffic. As late as the final lap, Johnson thought he was going to win his first championship.

“My eyes were forward, I’m like, Yes! Yes! Yes! I’m doing the right things! I’m doing it all!,” Johnson said.

It may have been the greatest NASCAR championship story in history. In October of that year, a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed on the way to Martinsville, killing 10 people, including team owner Rick Hendrick’s brother, son and two nieces. Also killed were Hendrick’s chief engine builder, Randy Dorton, and general manager, Jeff Turner.

Johnson won two of the next three races to storm from afterthought to contender. And for much of that Sunday afternoon, he thought this storybook ending was meant to be, that he was fated to win. NASCAR history is full of like this, and until the last turn, Johnson thought he was helping to write one of the best ever.

“I looked in the mirror coming off of (Turn 4), and I saw the tape. I’m like, no. It’s not happening,” he said. He needed more cars between him and Busch than there were. “To look up in the mirror and see that orange tape I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me. It’s not meant to be. It’s not. It’s over.”

–   –   –

Jared C. Tilton
Jared C. Tilton

In 2015, Kyle Busch’s season looked over before it even started.

He broke his right leg and his left foot in a crash in the season-opening race in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He missed 11 Cup races, but fought back to make the playoffs and qualify among the final four at Miami. He and his wife, Samantha, had their first child, a son named Brexton, who was born that May after an emotionally painful and stressful in-vitro fertilization process.

They had already had a year full of ups and downs. And now Busch was on the verge of the greatest up of his career, and yet he and Samantha tried to act like it was a normal weekend. They didn’t even talk about the fact he could win the championship. They ate a quiet dinner in their motorhome the night before, and Kyle went through his normal pre-race study session, cool as could be. The only sign anything was different was that Brexton, then 6 months old, had gone with his grandparents to sleep in a hotel.

All of their outward calm was an act, a charade, a way to distract themselves. “I wanted to throw up every second of the day,” Samantha Busch said.

PICTURES: Of Samantha, Kyle over time

However nervous drivers are, their loved ones might be even more so. At least the driver has control, or some semblance of it, by holding the steering wheel and pushing the pedals. All family members can do is watch.

When Samantha Busch gets nervous during races, she shakes, and that causes the pit box to shake, which distracts the engineers and crew chief and worries the fans and sponsors sitting up there. As the race neared its end, Samantha tried to “unfocus,” as she put it – to distract herself by praying and texting with friends.

But she could never take her eyes off the action for long. “I remember the last 30 laps being in panic mode and just trying to breathe through it, watching him every lap. It was the longest end of the race ever.”

After Kyle won the race and the championship, she ran to congratulate him. The sea of crew members parted. She leapt into his arms and kissed him. His eyes were wet. She was still crying. “He said, ‘We did it,’ ” she said. “We were a team. We had to struggle. We got pregnant together. We finally had our son. Then we went through all of his physical therapy together.”

A few hours later – it was maybe 2 a.m. – she woke up Brexton to take him out on the track. “Awesome mom,” she jokes. But this was a family moment to be savored. “We were sitting on the track doing photos,” she said. “We worked so hard for him and had to go through so many things to get him. To have Brexton, who, in a sense, was one trophy, and then the trophy, it was just like, Wow. Crazy cool. It started out so bad and got to here.”

Terrin Waack contributed to this report.