The 2013 NASCAR season concludes Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the Ford EcoBoost 400. The race not only features Jimmie Johnson attempting to win his sixth Sprint Cup championship, but the likely final start for the venerable Mark Martin.
It's all about the prize
Holding a 28-point lead over second-place Matt Kenseth, all Johnson has to do Sunday is finish 23rd or better if he doesn't lead a lap.
Although anything can happen, the reality is something drastic would have to occur for Johnson not to win his sixth championship. And the chances of Kenseth passing Johnson is further minimized when you consider that only twice this season in has he outscored his rival by 28 or more points.
For his part, Kenseth has done everything he can so far to put pressure on Johnson. During Friday qualifying, Kenseth sped to his third pole of the season -- and the first time he's ever set fast time in a Chase race. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver then posted the quickest speed in both sessions of practice Saturday.
But no matter what he does, even if he leads the most laps and wins the race, Kenseth's fate still rests with how Johnson performs.
"We can't really control what they (Johnson's No. 48 team) do and obviously they don't usually run 23rd or 24th without any problems," Kenseth said. "Really I think we just concentrate 100 percent on (our car) and try to do everything we can to go out there and run up front. Hopefully, we have a shot to win the race and finish as high as we can so if they do have any problems we're there to capitalize on that."
The strategy Johnson will employ Sunday is rather straightforward. His plan involves taking minimal risk, not concerning himself with where Kenseth is running and focusing on making his car the best it can be. It's a gameplan he has successfully utilized previously when coming into the final race of the year with a comfortable lead.
As for Kevin Harvick, 34 points behind and the only other driver with a mathematical chance of catching Johnson, he admits something bizarre would have to occur for him to even have a puncher's chance. Harvick joked Thursday his best hope may lie with him locking Johnson in a porta-potty before the race.
"Realistically the only things we can control are what we do," Harvick said. "It's definitely a really, really longshot. But we'll control the things that are in our control and see how it all falls."
End of an era
The final race of 2013 represents a changing of the guard of sorts, as four veterans are either greatly reducing their presence in NASCAR's No. 1 division or retiring altogether.
Without directly using the ‘R' word, Martin announced a week ago he no plans to race in 2014. "It's time for me to open a new chapter and do some other things," he said. The 54-year-old has made 881 Cup starts in a career that spanned four decades, fifth-all time. He has 40 victories, and has finished a NASCAR-record runner-up in the point standings five times, most recently in 2009 to then-teammate Johnson.
Martin plans to continue to be involved in the sport and will be a test driver for Stewart-Haas Racing, along with a driving coach for Danica Patrick.
"It's exciting, because I get to be involved in racing, and I love it so much," Martin said. "But I don't think I'm going to miss being a race car driver, because I got to do that, and I was really good at it."
While no one would be surprised to see Martin race occasionally if the right situation arose, Ken Schrader has already stated Homestead will be his final Cup race. Long before Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, Schrader was among the first who transitioned from running former USAC and IndyCar to NASCAR full-time. He was the Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 1985, and four times visited the winner's circle.
As for Labonte and Burton, their respective plans are unknown. Labonte isn't running at Homestead as his final race with JTG/Daugherty Racing was last week at Phoenix. He is being replaced by AJ Allmendinger, and though the 2000 Cup champion would like to continue in Cup his prospects to continue doing so are slim.
Labonte, 49, hasn't won a race since 2003 and his best points finish in the last 10 years is 18th. He says he'd be willing to drop down to the Nationwide or Truck Series next season, but for now he has no firm plans.
Burton, too, hasn't announced his future plans. However, he has hinted that he is close to finalizing a deal that would see him compete on a limited basis next season, rumored to be joining Michael Waltrip Racing.
Combined, Martin, Schrader, Labonte and Burton have started 1,462 Cup events and accrued 86 victories.
Still winless on the year
Since entering Cup in 2006, Denny Hamlin has won at least one race every season. This year, however, in a campaign that has been riddled with injury and underperformance, he finds himself still looking for his first visit to Victory Lane.
Hamlin isn't the only driver who won last year who has yet to do so in 2013. He is joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose.
Earnhardt and Bowyer, both of whom qualified for the Chase, have come close several times and should be formidable challengers Sunday. Earnhardt has been consistently strong on mile-and-a-half tracks, including a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, while Bowyer was second to Jeff Gordon in this race last year.
1. Matt Kenseth
There is a lot to like about Kenseth Sunday, besides being fastest in qualifying and throughout both practices Saturday. There are also his four victories this year on similarly sized tracks, and the fact he'll be desperate to score max points.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Has openly said he's concerned about going for the win, which means he'll be conservative through the early portions. But Johnson was fastest on long runs in final practice, and the expectation is once the championship is secured, he'll turn his attention to procuring the race victory as well.
3. Brad Keselowski
Having not made the Chase along with myriad other issues on and off the track, it hasn't been the reign Keselowski wanted as the defending Cup champion. That said, he has consistently been more competitive as of late, including a win last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway. A victory in Saturday's Nationwide race bodes well for his chances Sunday.