The 2019 NASCAR Cup Series and the Monster Energy era came to an end Sunday with the final round of the playoffs at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Entering Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch sought their second championships, while Denny Hamlin looked for his first. When the dust settled in Florida, Busch closed out a busy year with the title.
Due to rain plaguing the track throughout the weekend, qualifying was cancelled and the starting grid was set by owners’ points. As a result, the Championship Four occupied the first two rows with Hamlin and Harvick on the front row.
With the 2020 season on the horizon, the 400 marked a series of final runs for many drivers and their teams. For Paul Menard and David Ragan, who respectively started nineteenth and thirty-first, it was their final race as full-time Cup drivers. For others like Daniel Suárez (seventeenth), Chris Buescher (twentieth), Matt DiBenedetto (twenty-first), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (twenty-third), and Daniel Hemric (twenty-fifth), it was their last chances to impress their respective teams before departing for new organisations.
On the opposite side, Homestead was a new beginning for those like J.J. Yeley (thirty-fourth) and Drew Herring (thirty-seventh), with Yeley running full-time in the Cup Series in 2020 and Herring making his Cup Series début.
It did not take long for Harvick to pull away on the outside line with Hamlin and Busch in tow. Truex quickly sank as Kyle Larson passed him, though he reclaimed the position after a lap. On lap nine, Truex passed his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Busch for third.
Truex regained momentum until he took the lead from Harvick on lap 21. Behind him, Larson passed Busch for fourth. Larson, who has enjoyed plenty of success at Homestead despite never winning at the track (entering the race, he had led 325 total laps at Homestead, third most among active Cup drivers), continued to disrupt the Championship Four as he passed Hamlin and Harvick along the outside line to take second.
Green-flag stops began on lap 35 with Erik Jones as the first to pit. Harvick and Busch followed a lap later, with Truex doing so shortly after. After Truex pitted, Stenhouse inherited the lead before he hit pit road on lap 40, shuffling Truex back to first.
As the race hit the lap 50 mark, Larson was the lone non-Championship driver in the top five. Truex and Larson remained in their positions for the remainder of the stage, with Truex winning the stage handily as he led Larson by over six seconds. By the green-checkered flag, he had lapped all but the top thirteen.
Busch, Harvick, and Hamlin rounded out the top five. Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, and Austin Dillon ended the stage with top-ten finishes.
The leaders pitted between stages, with Truex being the first off pit road ahead of Busch; brother Kurt received a speeding penalty.
At the restart on lap 87, Larson pushed Busch along the inside line to the lead, though Truex fought back to retake the position. Two laps later, Larson passed Busch for second. Behind Larson, Busch and Harvick fought for third. Meanwhile, Timmy HIll suffered an uncontrolled tyre penalty.
On lap 107, Busch took third from Harvick, followed by second from Larson a lap later.
The next green-flag piut cycle opened on lap 118 with Hamlin doing so after running in seventh; throughout the race, Hamlin frequently reported of a tight race car that prevented him from keeping up with his championship rivals. Busch and Harvick followed two laps later. On his stop, Truex’s crew inadvertently placed the left-front tyre on his right-front side and vice versa, forcing him to pit again. As a result of the error, Truex fell a lap down.
“I’ve lost races from having to pit from the team putting the wrong tires on the wrong side,” former driver and 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton quipped on Twitter.
With the #19 team’s mistake, Busch stayed in front.
On lap 136, John Hunter Nemechek spun in turn one; although he saved the car, it was enough to produce a caution and give Truex his break. As the first car a lap down, Truex returned to the lead lap.
The race resumed on lap 143 with Busch and Harvick leading the field to the restart. A push by Larson kept Busch going on the outside and into first. On the next lap, Harvick took the position.
At lap 150, Truex was running ninth, but quickly gained ground and cracked the top five three laps later. With four laps before the end of the stage, Busch overtook Harvick for the lead and went on to win Stage #2.
Behind Busch and Harvick were Larson, Truex, Hamlin, Blaney, Joey Logano, Jones, Johnson, and Bowyer.
Busch and Harvick led the field to the final stage of 2019 on lap 167. A poor restart by Harvick elevated Busch ahead before Hamlin passed him on the inside to start the next lap.
As the two JGR team-mates battled side-by-side, Truex joined his allies in the top three. With Harvick in fourth, the Championship Round contenders occupied the top four positions. Busch eventually cleared Hamlin, while Harvick passed him for second on lap 174. Hamlin retaliated two laps later, and as the two fought for the runner-up spot, Busch began establishing a margin over them.
On lap 198, Larson passed Harvick for fourth; he later also claimed second from Truex on lap 207. Nearing the 200-lap mark, Chase Elliott pitted to begin the final series of stops under green. Hamlin pitted on lap 209, with Busch doing so two laps later.
On his stop, Larson’s race came to an abrupt end with an engine issue. Truex stayed out before coming to pit road on lap 215. A lap later, Byron’s car lost power but he was able to reach pit road; he eventually retired from the race, also with engine problems. Meanwhile, Darrell Wallace Jr. received a too-many-men-over-the-wall penalty.
As the lap counter ticked below 50 to go, Hamlin’s car began to overheat, causing it to emit steam from the hood. The issues stemmed from a miscalculation by the #11 crew when they applied tape to the grille, forcing them to remove it when he pitted.
Harvick remained out before finally pitting with 40 laps remaining. When he returned to the track, he was a lap down, as was Hamlin. Harvick eventually unlapped himself on lap 231, but found himself outside the top ten.
At the front, Busch’s lead over Truex increased by over seven seconds with less than 25 laps to go. As the two had to move through lapped traffic, only the top ten remained on the lead lap with ten laps left. Although Truex recorded faster lap times, the margin proved to be too great for him to catch up.
With Truex unable to close the gap, Busch stormed off to his fifth win of the year, first since the June Pocono Raceway event, and his first at Homestead since he won the title in 2015. It was a busy 2019 for Busch, who also won all five Gander Outdoors Truck Series races he ran and four of seven Xfinity Series events. Early in November, he also announced he would dabble in sports car racing for the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2020.
For his JGR team, it was their nineteenth victory of the season to wrap up a tumultuous 2019: after a tragic start to the year with the passing of team co-owner J.D. Gibbs, Hamlin kicked off the season with a Daytona 500 victory, with Busch’s title to close things out.
“We have a great race team and a great owner and the best sponsor in sports,” Busch said in his post-race interview with NBC. “[…] I know J.D. was looking down on us all year long.”