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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup

5 Keys to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Championship

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In case you’re wondering which of the four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship contenders has an advantage heading into Sunday’s season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the correct answer is this: No one has enough of an edge to be a legitimate favorite.

Here’s how it breaks down:  The Toyotas of Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing have been slightly faster than the Fords of Kevin Harvick from Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski so far this weekend at Homestead.

The key word here is “slightly.”

In qualifying Friday, Truex qualified second behind pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, with Busch third, Keselowski sixth and Harvick ninth.

Practices on Saturday were even closer.

During the first session, Truex had the second-best 10 consecutive-lap average speed, again right behind Hamlin. Keselowski was right there, too, in third, just ahead of fourth-place Busch and Harvick in sixth.

Matthew T. Thacker | NKP

And in the final Happy Hour session, Busch was tops in best 10 consecutive-lap average speed, with Truex second, Harvick fourth and Keselowski sixth.

If any of the four has a huge speed advantage, they haven’t shown it yet.

So here’s what the race should come down to.

Strategy

The champion on Sunday will be the driver who finishes ahead of the other three title contenders. While the rest of the field will get stage points, the championship four drivers don’t. To win, one driver only will have to outrun his three rivals.

“Pit strategies and race strategies are going to be all over the place because we don’t care about stage points,” said Busch. “The rest of the field is going to care about stage points and things like that.”

Keep it off the wall

Matthew T. Thacker | NKP

Homestead in some ways is like Darlington used to be: The fast way is around the very top of the track, but it’s also the most treacherous, because it’s easy to scrape the wall and ruin your day. “Running the whole race without hitting the wall is gonna be a big challenge,” said Keselowski.

Several drivers tagged the wall in practice on Saturday, including Truex, who incurred only minor damage to his No. 78 Toyota.

Rubber meets the road

At Homestead, tire wear is huge, too, again, just like at Darlington.

“You just don’t want to be at the end of this race with less sets of tires than the guys that you’re racing with, the way that the tire strategy is,” said Harvick. “… Obviously, tire fall-off is something that we always talk about here, and I think this weekend it’s going to be magnified.”

Changing conditions

Matthew T. Thacker | NKP

Sunday’s race will begin in daylight and end in darkness. The four crew chiefs will be charged with properly adjusting the cars to keep up with the conditions.

“Trying to plan on finishing this race at night is part of what we’re trying to figure out,” Truex said after final practice on Saturday. “I think we changed enough and made enough adjustments today and we learned a lot. That gives us a lot to look at tonight and make the right decisions based off of that.”

The end

Since NASCAR adopted the winner-take-all format at Homestead in 2014, there has been a caution in the final 10 laps of the Ford EcoBoost 400 all three years. That means there’s a strong chance there will be another caution in the last 10 laps this time.

If there is, the race winner will be the driver who has the best final pit stop and the best final restart.

And it’s the end of the race that’s going to determine whether Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski or Martin Truex Jr. is crowned as the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen is a veteran motorsports journalist. He spent 13 years with FOXSports.com, where he was Digital Content Manager. Previously, he was executive editor of NASCAR Scene and managing editor of National Speed Sport News. Jensen served as the president of the National Motorsports Press Association and is the group’s former Writer of the Year.