Monday June 17th, 2019 4:51PM

NASCAR Cup finale lived up to Championship billing

By Holly Cain-NASCAR Wire Service
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As NASCAR prepares to honor its newly-crowned 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano in Las Vegas Thursday night, it will also recognize the fantastic seasons of its two eight-race winners, Kevin Harvick and regular season champion Kyle Busch as well as the fourth member of the Championship 4, Martin Truex, Jr., who finished runner-up to Logano in the season’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago.

As has developed into tradition, these four drivers settled the title among themselves – with the champion winning the season finale race. But for the first time ever, the four championship-eligible drivers finished 1-2-3-4 in the Homestead-Miami finale.

Logano beat Truex by 1.75-seconds for the win – the largest margin of victory since Denny Hamlin’s 2.632-second win over Jeff Burton in 2009. Harvick and Busch finished third and fourth behind Truex.

This marks the fifth consecutive time that the champion won the Homestead-Miami season finale race. In all five instances, however, there was plenty of late race drama.

Logano passed Truex with 12 laps to go for this year’s season trophy. In 2017, Truex took the lead from Busch with 51 laps remaining and had to hold Busch off in the waning laps for the win.

In 2016, Johnson took the race lead from Kyle Larson – who was not championship eligible – with only three laps remaining and motored on to his record-tying seventh Cup title.

Kyle Busch took the lead from Brad Keselowski with only seven laps remaining and held on to take the checkered and first ever championship in 2015. A year earlier, Harvick took the lead with only eight laps remaining and managed to hold off the field for his first title.

Four of the five drivers in the Playoff format earned their first Cup trophies. Johnson is the only repeat winner in that time.

Best Of The Rest

As the newcomer and fourth driver at Stewart-Haas Racing this year, most people held conservative expectations for Aric Almirola – expectations the 34-year old Tampa native blew out of the water.

After earning only his second ever bid into the Playoffs, Almirola advanced all the way to the next to last round – and then claimed fifth place overall in the championship standings – besting multi-time winners such as Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer.

Almirola averaged an 8.6 finish in the 10-race Playoffs, picking up his first victory since 2014 and first with SHR in the Talladega Playoff race. He had seven top-10 finishes and three top-five finishes. His four top-fives and 17 top-10s on the season are career highs – the top-10 mark more than doubled his previous best effort in six earlier full time Cup seasons.

Monster Energy Series Statistical Leaders

Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford led the most laps on the season – 1,990 laps equal to 19.6 percent of all laps run this season. Fellow eight-time race winner, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch was next with 1,469 laps out front, equal to 14.5 percent of laps run.

The only other driver in quadruple digits for time out front was championship runner-up Martin Truex, Jr., who led 1,011 laps – equivalent to 10 percent of all competitive laps this season. This is the seventh consecutive season the series has had three or more drivers with more than 1,000 laps led.

When it comes to Driver Ratings, Harvick was again best of the best. In fact his driver rating of 115.9 was substantially tops in class. Busch was second at 109.3, followed by Truex at 101.8 and Kurt Busch at 98.4. The season champion Logano was sixth overall at 97.3, just behind his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski at 97.7.

Generation Now

So much has been made of NASCAR’s new generation of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers. This was a breakout season for 22-year old Chase Elliott, who won at the Cup level for the first time then answered with two more victories and a strong run in the Playoffs. The Hendrick Motorsports driver tied last season’s career high 21 top-10s and scored a sixth-place finish in the final Cup points standings. He’s ranked in the top-10 in all three of his Cup seasons.

Erik Jones, 22, also hoisted his first ever Monster Energy Series trophy at Daytona in July and qualified for his first Playoff venture. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s top-fives (nine) and top-10s (18) are a career high. He finished 15th in the points standings.

Ryan Blaney, 24, answered his career first win last year at Pocono Raceway with a victory on the new Charlotte Road Course to punctuate his 2018 Playoff run. The Team Penske driver also had career best showings in top-five (eight) and top-10 (16) finishes and finished 10th in the final championship standings.

Kyle Larson, 25, didn’t win this season, but 12 top-fives and 19 top-10s helped the Chip Ganassi Racing driver to another top-10 finish in the standings (ninth place).

New Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman, 25, more than tripled his career top-10 (11) production taking over the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 for the retiring Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He qualified for the Playoffs for the first time and finished 16th.

No Quit In These Drivers

Veteran Ryan Newman – the 2008 Daytona 500 winner and 2014 championship runner-up – kept the non-Playoff drivers honest in closing out the season. The Richard Childress Racing driver finished 17th in the standings – tops among those who did not advance to the Playoffs.

Newman’s nine top-10 finishes tied him with Daniel Suarez for most top-10s among non-Playoff drivers. This year marked the first time in his 17-year Cup career that he did not score a top-five. Newman moves from RCR to Roush-Fenway Racing in 2019.

Rookie Runs

There was a relatively similar learning curve for the Cup Series’ two rookies this season – Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, 20, and Richard Petty Motorsports’ Darrell Wallace, Jr., 24.

Byron won the Rookie of the Year honors for his work in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He finished 23rd in the points standings and scored four top-10 finishes. Wallace kept Byron honest the whole season, starting off the year with a dramatic runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 and adding three more top-10 showings. He finished 28th in points.

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