Last hurrah for Homestead: track hosts final title races

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A crew member walks in the pits during a rain delay of NASCAR auto racing activities on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. (Photo: AP)

In many ways, Homestead-Miami Speedway was the ideal spot for NASCAR’s “championship weekend.”

Great weather, especially for November. A famous beach and trendy nightlife nearby. And a worn-out asphalt track that’s produced slipping, sliding, side-by-side racing and nine different winners in the last nine years.

The Cup Series champion has been crowned at the South Florida speedway every year since 2002 and will be again Sunday, for the 18th consecutive year.

Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are the title contenders, and the highest finisher among the four will clinch the championship. For one of them, it will be a life-changing moment. For Homestead, it will be a last hurrah.

NASCAR moved “championship weekend” to Phoenix in 2020, leaving Homestead to settle for a March race date amid Spring Break.

What happens in 2021 is unclear. Many believe the NASCAR finale will remain in Phoenix, especially after the sanctioning body recently spent $170 million on facility upgrades. But others think it should rotate.

“In all honesty, it shouldn’t be in Phoenix the year after,” Harvick said. “Having that championship race is important to new markets, new fans, exposing people to our sport. ... To me, what happens in the race is irrelevant.

“It’s great that we’re going to crown a champion. We all love Homestead. The event and the market and the notoriety, the new things that come to a new market that help carry that racetrack for a number of years to come, are important. We have to use our championship event to rebuild enthusiasm in markets. I think that will be the first step to doing that.”

Homestead’s championship days might be numbered, but the memories of fantastic finales will linger.

The speedway has delivered several compelling clinchers, most notably in 2011 and 2016, and provided the backdrop for several high-profile retirement parties. NASCAR stars Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick all said goodbye in some fashion at the track.

Stewart walked away five years after his third and final Cup title, which may have been the most memorable of the three.

Stewart and Carl Edwards were the remaining contenders in 2011, and Edwards dominated for much of the first half of the race. Stewart, meanwhile, was running 25th before making some changes and charging to the front.

They ran 1-2 over the final 27 laps, but Edwards couldn’t chase down Stewart, who won his third Cup Series championship. They actually finished tied in points, but Stewart won the title on a tiebreaker (most victories).

“Did I make it exciting enough?” Stewart radioed to his team.

The finish was even better five years later.

Edwards was on the front row for a restart with 10 laps to go when he blocked fellow title contender Joey Logano and wrecked a chunk of the field. Jimmie Johnson eluded the crash and won his record-tying seventh Cup championship.

But the indelible image of the night was Edwards walking to the infield care center and stopping along the way to apologize to Logano’s team. Edwards walked away from the series two months later.

“The racetrack is phenomenal,” Hamlin said. “I believe as a driver you can really make a difference here. Even if your car is lacking a little bit, you can move around and change the characteristics of your car, the handling of your car through different lines and whatnot.”

But NASCAR decided to make the move to showcase its investment in ISM Raceway and Phoenix, which is considered a more enthusiastic racing market.

“There are pluses and minuses to everything, right?” Truex said. “I think the plus about here at Homestead, we only come here once a year. Completely different racetrack than anywhere we go. ... I don’t know that we should race for a championship somewhere where we raced already in the season, you know?

“You’re going to have an idea who is going to be good. This weekend is a total crapshoot because we haven’t been here in a year. It’s a new car, new tire, everything is different. You have no idea what to expect. That’s a good thing for the championship. ... At the same time, I definitely think we should move it around.”

Track officials have embraced the shift and recently upgraded several fan amenities to give the speedway a more South Beach feel.

They created Ally Beach, a 20,000-square-feet beach located inside Turn 3 that overlooks the spring-fed lake that spans the length of the backstretch. The beach will host an infield party for guests 18 and older and include live entertainment and water activities.

They also built a fan village that includes a sports bar as well as local music, salsa dancers and live paintings by local artists.

“It is bittersweet. There’s no question about it,” track president Al Garcia said. “But every time something happens, a door closes, another one opens. I really am very optimistic about the privilege of running here during that Spring Break time.”