Can Kevin Harvick spoil Joe Gibbs Racing’s party?

NASCAR

Joe Gibbs Racing will be the favorite to take home another title Sunday when the season-ending, championship-determining Ford EcoBoost 400 gets underway at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

That’s because three-quarters of the four-team championship field compete for the Huntersville, North Carolina-based organization.

Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 19 Toyota Camry, led the series this year with seven victories.

Kyle Busch, winner of the title in ’15, won four times during the 26-race regular season and earned the final berth in this year’s title race thanks to his point total in the semifinal round.

Meanwhile, six-time race winner Denny Hamlin used a clutch victory at ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona, on Sunday to vault from outside the playoff picture into title contention.

Breaking up the JGR party is Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing and winner of the 2014 championship. The lone non-JGR driver scored a win during the semifinal round at Texas Motor Speedway to earn his fifth title shot in six years.

It is the first time under this championship format that one organization has placed more than two teams in the final — JGR sent Busch and former driver Carl Edwards into the championship in 2016 but came up empty as Jimmie Johnson won a record-tying seventh title.

Working closely together has allowed the JGR group to dominate much of the 2019 season, winning 18 of the 35 races contested. Teammate Erik Jones won the legendary Southern 500 at Darlington (South Carolina) but was ousted in the first round of the playoffs.

Working together means sharing information, providing data and other pertinent information across all teams. But with the championship on the line, how much of that sharing will continue?

“Obviously, this is the first time something like this has happened,” JGR founder Joe Gibbs said after Hamlin’s recent victory, noting that while some things will remain the same, the expectation is that the flow of information might be altered.

“I think our preparation and everything, there will be some division this week,” said Gibbs, a member of the NFL and NASCAR Halls of Fame. “I would say at the racetrack obviously it’s going to be, you know, our three teams going for it as hard as they can, each one of them.”

“I can’t speak for everyone,” Truex said. “I feel like we’re all here because we work together, our teams work together really well. … I would assume all the way ’til Sunday morning we’ll probably all work together. That’s just what I think. We’ll see what everyone else wants to do.”

Busch, the only championship participant without a win in the playoffs, said working with title-contending teammates in the past has been the norm, and he expects the same this time around.

“I wouldn’t imagine it would be any different now,” said Busch, 34. “It’s just a matter of all of us doing what we do throughout the week for preparation and everything ….

“Last year Martin and myself were in. I guess he wasn’t really a teammate (Truex drove for Furniture Row Racing, which had a technical alliance with JGR), but in reality, they kind of still were. We worked together all the way to Sunday.”

Truex won at Martinsville to begin this year’s semifinal round while Harvick won the following week at Texas to secure his spot at the championship table.

At 43, Harvick is the oldest of the finalists. He and crew chief Rodney Childers have won 26 times since being paired together at SHR in 2014. Harvick describes 2019 as “a very interesting year for us.”

“It’s been a challenge to get where we are today, just to battle through the beginning of the year and get this ship turned around and [headed] in the right direction,” he said.

“I think the strength and experience of our race team has kind of carried the results that are in the finish column and the stages won and stage points and those types of things. As we went through the late summer and in the playoffs, I feel like we … have got our cars back to being competitive … able to lead laps and we’ve been able to do that.”

Hamlin is the only title contender without a title — he finished second in 2010 after a career-best eight wins during the season. Teamed for 2019 with crew chief Chris Gabehart, Hamlin appears to have the hot hand heading into Homestead.

“I’m going to enjoy the moment,” Hamlin said after his Phoenix victory. “All you can ask for at the start of the year is … a chance to compete for a championship. We have a chance to compete. It’s ‘goal accomplished.’ Now we’ve just got to go out there and do it.”

JGR has won four NASCAR premier series titles — with drivers Bobby Labonte (2000), Tony Stewart (2002, ’05) and Busch (’15).

Stewart-Haas Racing has a pair of titles — Stewart in ’11 and Harvick in ’14.

Under the format, the highest-finishing driver among the four championship contenders wins the title. In five seasons, it’s taken a win, however, to secure the crown.

The Ford EcoBoost 400 is slated for a 3 p.m. ET green flag. It will mark the 10th and final time the 1.5-mile track located in south Florida will host the championship round for NASCAR’s premier series. ISM Raceway will host the title race in 2020.

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