Craig Murto: Room for one more at Homestead

Following the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, five drivers will be battling at Phoenix for one remaining spot in the final four and the opportunity to race for the championship at Miami-Homestead, Florida.

Kevin Harvick earned his spot in the final by winning the race at Texas. Second-place finisher Martin Truex Jr. earned enough points that he’ll be in the Top 4 no matter what happens in Phoenix. Kyle Busch earned his spot in the championship round by winning the playoff race at Martinsville.

Currently, as the series enters the final playoff race in the Round of Eight, Brad Keselowski is fourth in points, 19 ahead of Denny Hamlin. That puts Keselowski in the field at Homestead. But as we’ve seen in recent weeks, anything can happen in the playoffs.

Ryan Blaney is sixth, 22 points behind Keselowski. Chase Elliott (49 points behind) and Jimmie Johnson (negative 51 points) are in must-win situations; there is little to no chance they make the final if they don’t win at Phoenix this weekend.

The NASCAR playoff system and winner-take-all championship final has created a lot of excitement in recent years. But this is one year that will stir sentiment against this points system if Truex doesn’t win the championship.

Truex has dominated on 1.5-mile tracks, and accumulated so many points that if NASCAR did not use the stages and the playoff system, Truex could stay at home during the final race and still win the title.

That sort of domination and anticlimactic end of the season is exactly what the current playoff system is in place to prevent. The current system is in place to guarantee excitement at the end of the year, and it serves its purpose. But the 2017 season is unique.

Though they get help from Joe Gibbs Racing, the Furniture Row Racing team for which Truex drives is truly a remarkable success story. Few would have thought that the small team based in Denver, Colorado, ever would have had a chance at winning the championship.

Even Truex wasn’t expected to be such a force. Though he’s a two-time Xfinity Series champion, the 37-year-old racer from New Jersey ran in the Cup series for many years before he ever looked like a threat to win. He is proof that many drivers on the circuit are better than the equipment they race around the track.

But all of his battles are not on the racetrack. His longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, battles stage III ovarian cancer. Despite her personal battles with the disease, she helped Truex begin the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation, which helps support children with pediatric cancer.

If Truex loses the title at Homestead, it will be interesting to gauge fan reaction. The current playoff system treats the season as if NASCAR were a ball-and-stick sport. In football a team can be perfect and still lose the Super Bowl; football fans accept that, it’s the game. But there are still a lot of fans who see the new NASCAR system and winner-take-all championship race as nothing more than a gimmick; racing championships always were based on total points accumulated throughout the entire season.

The Formula One season isn’t over yet, but Lewis Hamilton already clinched his fourth world driving championship in Mexico a couple weeks ago because Sebastian Vettel did not earn enough points to keep his challenge alive.

The first world driving championship of the modern F1 era was awarded in 1950 to Giuseppe Farina. Alberta Ascari became the first person to win multiple titles in 1952-’53.

Hamilton is now the most successful British F1 driver in history with 62 race wins and 72 poles.

Michael Schumacher leads the list of champions with seven titles to his name, including five in a row. Juan Manuel Fangio is next on the list with five F1 championships.

Hamilton joins Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel with four titles. Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna all have three world championships. In total, since the modern era began, 33 drivers have been crowned F1 world champion. Included on that list are two drivers from the United States, Phil Hill and Mario Andretti.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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