5 things to watch for during Cup series season finale at Homestead

Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch each have eight wins this season. Will one of them bring home the title? Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- NASCAR's playoff format, designed to create dramatics Sunday in its Cup series championship finale, has featured a little bit of everything since its implementation in 2014.

There have been crashes on restarts that have taken out leaders. There have been frustrated drivers bogged down behind non-championship drivers wondering why they don't get a little favor of a wave-by in order to compete for the title.

Here are five things to look for as Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano compete (with 35 other non-championship contenders mixed in) for the 2018 title Sunday in the Ford EcoBoost 400. The top finisher among those four will earn the title, and in the first four years of the format, that driver has also won the race.

Don't be surprised if one of these four is in the lead for much of the race. They have combined to lead 52.39 percent of all laps this year: Harvick 19.35 percent, Busch 14.50 percent, Truex 9.98 percent and Logano 8.55 percent.

1. Impatience. Or bold moves

It depends on how one views the best way to make something happen, especially late in the race. Logano and Carl Edwards wrecked in 2016 on a restart where an Edwards block -- and Logano turning him -- was considered a necessary move as the two battled for the championship.

Last year, Busch had the best car but couldn't get around Logano to make a charge at Truex. He might need to be less patient this year if a similar situation comes around.

Logano hasn't won at a 1.5-mile track since 2015, and the last drivers to win at 1.5-mile tracks were Harvick (at Texas, although he had an illegal spoiler), Chase Elliott (Kansas), Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas), Truex (Kentucky) and Busch (Chicagoland).

Looking at that list, it's hard to find a driver who has a shot at the title who also has a solid advantage.

"This last few intermediates that we've had are probably the biggest reflection upon what you might expect at Homestead, and I just didn't see anybody drive away from the field on pure speed in the last few races," Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said. "Harvick won Texas, but we had some issues that trapped us a lap down, and lap-time-wise and speed-wise, I felt like we were right there with him.

"And Joey was fast, too. I wouldn't pin the favorite label on us, and equally I wouldn't put it on anybody else."

The key? Don't make a fatal mistake that you can't recover from on pit road. And be open to not running one specific racing line as the progressive banking allows for different options.

"It's a unique racetrack," Harvick said. "You know running right against the fence is probably the fastest way around after Lap 25. What happens if there's only 20 laps left? Where do you run then? Do you run the bottom? The middle?

"You just have to have options here from what your car will do, what you do as a driver because it's such a unique track."

Those options can change with a green flag likely around 3:20 p.m. Eastern and sundown at 5:33 p.m., which means the race will go from the heat of the day into the night.

"Last year, we were lights out," Truex said. "The 4 car [of Harvick], if they could hit it, they could beat us. This year, the 4 car has been lights out, and if we hit it, we can beat them. I know if we hit it, we can beat any of them, and we showed that.

"It's been harder to consistently hit that target this year. It's been more difficult. With that said, though, I felt like both Kansas and Texas, we weren't bad. We had everything go against us."

2. Gibson atop the Harvick box

Tony Gibson has told the Harvick team he is just trying to not mess up as he fills in for the suspended Rodney Childers. The team can communicate with Childers throughout the race but not on the team radio.

Childers and suspended car chief Robert Smith will be allowed to be at Homestead to celebrate with the team if Harvick wins the title.

For Gibson, he compares this to being the fuel man for the 1992 championship of Alan Kulwicki, a championship that came down to the final moments of the race.

"It came down to a green-flag fuel stop, and Alan was coming down pit road, and I step over and I realize I'm the only guy on pit road, and we're the only car on pit road," Gibson said. "And I had to get 3.2 seconds of fuel in this thing to make it to the end, and if I don't get it in there and if I don't do my job, then it all lays on my shoulders.

"That's probably the last time I've been in this situation with this much load on it."

It has been a long year for Gibson, who missed a few weeks in the summer from his job overseeing car builds in the shop after having a blood clot in his brain and a mini-stroke. Despite all that, he wanted to do this fill-in role, being called on as the veteran former crew chief to handle Phoenix last week and Homestead this week.

"I had to call my doctors and make sure that I could fly, that it was safe for me to fly," Gibson said. "So I did that and contacted my doctors, and they all released me to go and fly. They said I'm probably safer than anybody on the plane as far as blood clots with the medicines that I'm on. ... There was no way I was going to let those guys down. So as long as my doctor said I could go, I was going.

"There's just no doubt about it. That's what they got me here to do, and I just feel like it's part of my job, whether it's helping all four cars every day of the week while I'm in the shop or if one needs me on the road."

3. Teams vs. NASCAR inspectors

It is not rare that teams have to work on their cars to meet NASCAR's measurements during a race weekend. So it was no surprise that at least the Logano and Busch teams were massaging their cars before the first practice Friday.

The biggest difference possibly could center on the rear spoilers. Several teams changed spoilers last week following the Harvick team getting busted after Texas with a spoiler it had made that didn't meet specifications and obviously wasn't from the NASCAR-mandated provider.

If a team was heavily relying on the spoiler for an advantage -- Harvick indicated it would create more downforce although he felt he would have won Texas even with a legal spoiler -- it might not perform as well as it has in recent months.

"Racing in general, the sanctioning bodies have to write the rules," Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart said. "It's the team's job to interpret the rules and to try to take advantage of every gray area that's available to them. That's been a part of racing from the beginning of time, and it's not going to stop at the end of this season.

"It's part of the sport. It always will be part of the sport. ... Technology changes so fast, it's a very hard process for NASCAR to keep up with and stay ahead of. My time in NASCAR, they've had to react to most things, and it's very hard for them to get ahead of things."

4. One last ride

The end of the 2018 season doesn't include a retirement as high-profile as those of past years -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2017, Tony Stewart in 2016 and Jeff Gordon in 2015.

But the race will serve as the end of the line for some notable drivers and pairings.

Matt Kenseth has said he doesn't envision racing again, although he won't completely shut the door on returning. He has run a part-time schedule in the Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 car this year, sharing the ride with Trevor Bayne.

Jamie McMurray appears to be ending his full-time driving schedule. Chip Ganassi has offered him a one-race deal for next year to race the Daytona 500, but the team hasn't announced whether he has accepted the offer.

Jimmie Johnson will have Chad Knaus as his crew chief for the last time in their 17-year run. Knaus will move to crew chief William Byron in the Hendrick stable next year while JR Motorsports crew chief Kevin Meendering (who has been working with Elliott Sadler) will crew chief Johnson starting next year.

And Truex is piloting the No. 78 car for the last time as Furniture Row Racing will close after the race Sunday. The team had an emotional send-off for the hauler late Tuesday night.

"It's been an emotional time for all of us, and the fact to be able to go down there and have a shot at it and have a good shot at it, it means a lot," said Truex crew chief Cole Pearn, who will move to Joe Gibbs Racing along with Truex.

"It's a sad time for all of us to kind of be going out as a group, but to go out that way [with a second consecutive title] would be unbelievable."

Among the other "last rides with their teams" this weekend include AJ Allmendinger's last race with JTG Daugherty Racing (being replaced by Ryan Preece), Ryan Newman's last race with Richard Childress Racing (he's moving to replace Kenseth/Bayne while Daniel Hemric will replace him at RCR) and Daniel Suarez's final race at Joe Gibbs Racing (he's being replaced by Truex). Suarez is negotiating with SHR to replace Kurt Busch, who is expected to be in his last race at SHR before a likely move to Ganassi to replace McMurray.

"Honestly, I'm just so ready to get this season done," said Suarez, echoing the feeling of drivers who have not had the season they are hoping for. "There is a lot going on, and I'm here right now just to have fun. ... Hopefully we can get things more clear about myself and next year soon. I am very positive in how things are moving forward."

Matt DiBenedetto is also in his last race with Go Fas Racing as he heads to Leavine Family Racing next year, replacing Kasey Kahne, who had to step out of the car in September because of health reasons and has been replaced by Regan Smith for the end of the season.

5. Winless

Two drivers could see notable streaks end Sunday. Johnson has won a race in each of his 16 full seasons; Denny Hamlin has won a race in each of his 12 seasons. Hamlin won the season finale at Homestead in 2013 to keep that streak going.

"You take a lot of pride in being a winner and being successful," former driver and current NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "Any time you don't accomplish those key things that you expect, not only out of yourself but the team expects out of you, the company expects out of you, when you're not in the group of winners or the people that made the playoffs -- any of those kind of things can really be disheartening, and it's a huge disappointment.

"You're going to talk yourself out of it. You're going to understate it, but it's going to be in the back of your mind throughout the offseason, into the next season, until you can get back to Victory Lane, until you can find your way back to being a winner."

And five by the numbers:

8: The number of wins for Kyle Busch and Harvick. Since 2008, three drivers have had eight wins and haven't won the title: Carl Edwards (2008, nine wins, second), Kyle Busch (2008, eight wins, 10th), Denny Hamlin (2010, eight wins, second).

16: The number of drivers who have won multiple championships. That number becomes 17 if Harvick, Truex or Busch wins the title Sunday.

22: Combined wins this year by the four championship finalists, the most of any of the four finalists since the creation of the elimination system in 2014.

28: Logano's age. The only driver since 2004 (Kurt Busch, age 26) to win a title and be 28 years old was Logano's Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski. Logano would be 28 years, 178 days old if he wins the title Sunday; Keselowski won the title at age 28, 280 days in 2012.

42: Harvick's age. If he wins the title, he'll be the oldest champion since Dale Jarrett in 1999. Jarrett was 42 years, 360 days old when he won the title. Harvick would be 42 years, 346 days old if he wins Sunday.