Championship Capper

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So, it’s come down to this. After 37 weeks, the Nextel Cup Chase boils down to Sunday’s 400 miles at Homestead, a show that’ll fittingly end under the lights and in near-prime time. Just four drivers remain in contention for the sport’s biggest prize and the $5 million or so that’ll be handed out in December in New York City. As has been dissected often these past couple of weeks it’s Tony Stewart’s title to lose. As long as the 20 car stays out of trouble and scores a top-11 finish or better, the Cup will reside in Columbus, Indiana.

While Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle would all make worthy champions, it’d be tough to make a case that Stewart isn’t the logical titleholder for 2005. He’s been the dominant force week in and week out since early in the summer, building his points lead on the strength of 18 top-tens in his last 20 races. That, friends, is the sort of consistency that leads to Cup championships. 13 of those finishes have been top-fives, a string I suspect hasn’t been matched in many, many years.

Still, Stewart has had an 18th and a 25th in that stretch which began at the first Michigan round back in June, giving his three chasers something to focus on going into Sunday afternoon’s finale. And like most clichés, there’s plenty of truth in the old saws “anything can happen” and “that’s why they line ‘em up and drop the green”. I know that while Tony will be plenty confident come Sunday afternoon, he won’t mentally start cashing the champion’s check until the last hundred miles.

But maybe the most compelling story line this weekend at Homestead will be played out Friday night, when Dennis Setzer and Ted Musgrave will face off for the Craftsman Truck title. I must confess that I find the Truck Series features some of the most entertaining racing anywhere, built on the hard work of some of the most interesting racers in the sport. The NCTS is full of young guns making reputations and of veteran hands earning some well-deserved wins and titles without sacrificing their sanity and privacy. Setzer and Musgrave surely fall into the latter category. Both are well into their 40’s, both learned their craft at some of the toughest short tracks in the land, and both have had some decent success in the Cup Series.

Midsummer it seemed as though Setzer was a lock to claim his first major NASCAR championship in the Morgan-Dollar Chevy. Dennis reeled off a string of wins and top finishes to build his points lead. But several races ago the 46 bunch started to run into some bad luck, just as Musgrave and his Ultra Motorsports Mopar team hit their stride. Now, this year’s Truck title is likely to end up in Ted’s hands, and he too will be a deserving Champion.

What’s interesting, and what’s made this another tight Championship fight, is that turn of fortunes involving the two drivers. At one point Setzer held a 227 point lead, on the strength of four victories during the summer run. Now, though, he’s gone nine straight events where he’s only finished better than 13th twice….while Musgrave has had seven top tens in the same stretch.

And keep in mind Musgrave has always been strong at Homestead…he won his first career NCTS event there four years ago, and has run second there twice. Another strong night in South Florida and he’ll be center stage for the first time in his long NASCAR career when the hardware and checks are passed out in December. It’ll be a well-deserved Championship for the veteran from Wisconsin.

Of course the Busch Series crown is also up for grabs this weekend, between Martin Truex and Clint Bowyer. Either way, the title will be “All in the Family”, the family being the DEI/RCR/Chevrolet triumvirate.

It promises to be a terrific way to close out the 2005 NASCAR season, which is what NASCAR officials were hoping for when they created the “Championship Weekend” concept..Keep the beverages and the remote handy.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2005

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