The final day of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is here. Today's Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway marks the culmination of the 10-month season, a marathon unlike any other in sports. It also brings to a close a terrific championship battle between two of the sport's greats, one already a two-time champion and the other hungry for the experience.
The 400-mile, 267-lap finale is scheduled to get underway at 3:15 p.m., with ESPN's coverage of the race beginning with a one-hour NASCAR Countdown pre-race show at 2 p.m. MRN Radio is also carrying the event (click here to find your affiliate), as is Sirius/XM on channel 90.
Carl Edwards fired the first shot yesterday, winning the pole yesterday while Tony Stewart qualified 15th. The prime track position gives Edwards an opportunity to immediately pick up a bonus point for leading a lap, and he could concievably earn a second bonus point for leading the most laps. Such a scenario would all-but ensure that, barring a disaster for Edwards, Stewart would have to win the race to secure his third championship.
To see the entire starting grid, visit Jayski.com. Take special note of the Ford teams qualified ahead of Stewart. Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and David Ragan are all Edwards' teammates, while A.J. Allmendinger's Richard Petty Motorsports team recieves engines and technical support from Roush-Fenway Racing. Stewart does have wingmen of his own, however, as most Chevrolet drivers - including those for Hendrick Motorsports, which supplies engines and chassis to Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman - have been outspoken in their hope that Stewart would bring the Bowtie Brigade a title.
While the most important story will be whether Edwards hoists his first championship trophy or Stewart carries his third home to Indiana, there are plenty of other stories left to play out in today's Ford 400.
Who's going to win the race? While either Edwards or Stewart could win today, of course, history is not on their side. Only six times in series history - and just once since 1971, when Jeff Gordon did it in 1998 - has the champion won the final race of the season. There are 41 other teams, 25-28 of which have a concievable shot at winning the event. Drivers like outside polesitter Martin Truex Jr., who is looking for his first win since 2007 and just the second of his career, and Allmendinger - chasing his first triumph - could play the role of spoiler with a triumph, taking precious points away from Edwards and Stewart.
Jimmie Johnson has never won at Homestead, is today his day? This is the first time since 2003 - Johnson's sophomore season - that he's entered the final race of the season with no chance of winning the championship. He has never won at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, though he did finish second to Bobby Labonte in 2003 and again last year behind Carl Edwards. A victory today would leave only Michigan International Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, and Watkins Glen International as current tracks on which Johnson has yet to triumph.
Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. break through? Earnhardt was fast during Saturday morning's first practice, which was run in cooler, shaded conditions that could be similar to those under which the race will finish tonight. Leaving the 128-race winless streak in 2011 and heading to the 2012 Daytona 500 as the sport's most recent winner would be a definite shot of confidence for Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led race team.
Will any of the drivers without a ride for 2012 make an impression that earns them a job? David Reutimann, David Ragan, and Brian Vickers are among the drivers without a ride for 2012, though Vickers could return to what is now Team Red Bull if an investor can be found to keep that team running. Reutimann and Ragan, however, are a different story. Reutimann has already been dropped by current employer Michael Waltrip Racing, while Ragan's UPS sponsorship is moving to Edwards' car in a scaled-back role next year. With no prospective sponsors on the horizon, Ragan is effectively out of a ride as well. A great performance by either or both of them - and Vickers, given the possibility that his No. 83 Toyota might be shuttered after this season - could save their spot in the sport.
Can Denny Hamlin exorcise the demons from last year's season-finale? Hamlin and his No. 11 team have been little more than a shadow of the group that won eight races in 2010 and entered last year's Ford 400 with a 15-point lead. After squandering that lead and letting Jimmie Johnson win his fifth-straight title, Hamlin has scored just one win this year and has been an afterthought in the Chase. A victory today could possibly help go a long way towards giving Hamlin and the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organization - which has disappointed as a whole this year - a shot of confidence heading into the offseason towards Speedweeks 2012.