Tires were the topic du jour on Saturday during final practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
A handful of teams spent much of the week lobbying to NASCAR for an additional set of tires after Goodyear decreased the available race day set from 12 last season to nine this year at Homestead. The sanctioning body eventually caved, sending a memo to teams that notified them of the option to purchase an additional set for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400.
That now gives teams 10 sets plus the one they qualified on during Friday time trials.
NASCAR did this because it would be a public relations nightmare for the Cup Series championship to be decided by a tire failure encouraged by a team feeling like it was forced to conserve and abuse its already limited tire supply.
That’s especially true for the weathered track surface at Homestead-Miami, one of the more abrasive circuits on the tour.
So why have nine sets available in the first place?
That was a Race Team Alliance–NASCAR collaborated decision. In this era where teams are trying to be more cost-effective, $2,000 per set over the course of an entire year builds up to more than a million-dollar investment.
But what is two grand more for this final race to better provide security that the championship would not be decided by a tire failure?
Final test and tune
So what is the pecking order with only the race itself left to complete?
Martin Truex Jr. has been the favorite to win this race and championship all summer, and the Furniture Row Racing team hasn’t done anything to discount the notion all weekend. He led first practice on Friday, qualified second to Denny Hamlin and paced final practice on Saturday.
Sure, he scraped the wall in final practice, but he thinks he’s close on having the feel he needs for Sunday.
„I thought we were pretty close,“ Truex said. „Need to get the balance a little better, but I think we definitely have enough speed to do what we need to do. Just have to get the balance right. Conditions, trying to plan on finishing this race at night is part of what we’re trying to figure out.
„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.“
Kyle Busch posted the fastest 10-lap average and seems just as capable as Truex to get the job done after 400 miles on Sunday. He has said all weekend that this weekend feels like the 2015 championship race, when he captured his first championship.
„We weren’t the best car in practice that year, either, and we were able to outrace them in the end,“ Busch said. „I’m looking for a complete 100 percent repeat and if we can do all of that then we’ll be the ones celebrating again Sunday night.“
Meanwhile, 2014 champion Kevin Harvick has shown decent speed but lost 15 minutes of practice due to a penalty hold from Phoenix. He posted the fourth-quickest 10-lap average but was 18th quickest overall.
„Everything is fine right now,“ Harvick said. „We kept the car clean and I feel like we have speed and the car hangs on really good. Everything is good so far.“
It bears repeating that Harvick has a second-place average finish at Homestead since 2014. It’s his overall best track, with one win and a 6.94 average finish in 16 races.
If the car is close, he should contend on Sunday night.
And then there’s Brad Keselowski, who has battled brake issues all weekend, and could only post the 11th fastest time. He said on Thursday that we wouldn’t have a clear pecking order until after Saturday, and now that the day has come and gone, he still isn’t sure what to make of his car.
„I’m not entirely sure,“ Keselowski said with a laugh. „We seem to be a little better than we were here at the test, which is good. We learned some things there that I was happy about. We still probably need a solid tenth or two to run with (Busch) and (Harvick).
„The 78 (Truex) looks really good on the short run, but this has a race of attrition look to it, so we’re gonna have to be smart about it.“
Remember that last year, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano were the pair to beat but were eliminated in an incident with just over 10 laps to go. Speed will go a long way to determining the championship on Sunday. But luck and attrition tend to go even further.
All that remains is 400 miles to determine a champion. Place your bets.