(SportsNetwork.com) - Two months ago, 16 drivers had hopes of winning this year's Sprint Cup Series championship, but now, just four of them remain in the Chase, as they will battle for title in Sunday's season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
After the first round in the Chase, the Challenger Round, A.J. Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, the 2004 series champion, and Greg Biffle were eliminated from title contention.
Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most-popular driver, Jimmie Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion, and Kasey Kahne were knocked out of the playoffs following the Contender Round.
This past Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon, the four-time series titleholder, as well as former Cup champions Matt Kenseth (2003) and Brad Keselowski (2012) failed to advance in the elimination race of the Eliminator Round.
Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, the winner at Phoenix, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman are the final four. None of these drivers has won a championship in NASCAR's premier series in the past. Four teams -- Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske -- and all three car manufacturers -- Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota -- are represented.
Hamlin, Harvick, Logano and Newman had their points reset to 5,000 each for Homestead, and the highest finisher among the four there will win the title.
Here's a look at the four drivers who will compete for the Sprint Cup championship at Homestead:
Denny Hamlin No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Hamlin concluded the Eliminator Round as the points leader. He was the only one who finished in the top-10 in each of the three races in this round. Hamlin, though, had to bounce back from a one-lap deficit to finish fifth at Phoenix. He suffered a flat tire during a caution in the early going and had to make an additional pit stop.
This year, Hamlin has scored one win, seven top-five finishes and 17 top-10s. His victory at Talladega in May earned him a spot in the 16-driver Chase field.
Of the four drivers, Hamlin is the only one who has won at Homestead in the past. His lone victory of the 2013 season came there. He also won there in 2009.
"I feel pretty optimistic," Hamlin said of Homestead. "I thought we had a great test there, and obviously no one saw that win coming last year. We were a lot less competitive at the end of last year, and we popped up and won that race.
"It's just a track that suits me for some reason. It's wide, tires wear out, and you get to really, if your car is working well, make up positions there. Track position is not crazy critical like it is at (Phoenix). Love it, love the opportunity. We're on house money now, so let's go have fun."
Hamlin's average finish in the first nine Chase races is 12.4. He finished second in the 2010 point standings.
Kevin Harvick No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Harvick's win at Phoenix -- his third consecutive and record-extending sixth overall victory there -- guaranteed him a final four spot. He came to Phoenix ranked last in the eight-driver Chase point standings after finishing 33rd at Martinsville and then second at Texas.
Can he keep his winning momentum going at Homestead?
"You just go down there and approach the week just like we approached this week," Harvick said. "Have fun with it, prepare your cars just like you've done all year, and feel like you've already been in that position as far as knowing how to prepare and how to mentally prepare yourself going into the week, because we just came here and did it this week. We won the race with our backs against the wall, had great pit stops and had great practices. They prepared the car great in the shop. Just do it one more week."
After spending the past 13 years with Richard Childress Racing, Harvick is in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing. And what a season it has been for the 38-year-old Harvick. He has four victories, 13 top-five finishes and 19 top-10s as well as a series-season-high eight pole wins. His average finish in the Chase is 8.8.
"I'm really proud of all these guys from Stewart-Haas Racing and (crew chief) Rodney (Childers) for the group of guys that they put together over the offseason, and to see this team build throughout the year has been something that for me has just fueled life back into me to come to the racetrack and be a part of something like this," Harvick said.
Harvick has five top-10 finishes and 11 top-10s in 13 starts at Homestead. His average finish of 8.1 there is best among the four drivers battling for the title.
Joey Logano No. 22 Team Penske Ford
Logano has a Chase-best average finish of 5.3, but he had to overcome adversity at Phoenix. He received a penalty for equipment leaving his pit stall during a stop early in the race. The fuel can was attached to his car when he left, falling off just past his stall line. Hamlin went one lap down but later became the beneficiary (lucky dog) during a caution, which put him back on the lead lap. He ended up finishing sixth.
"When those situations happen, you try to stay calm, but it was just so hard to do because there is so much on the line," Logano said. "I wasn't mad at anybody. I was just frustrated trying to get up through the field and trying to pass cars. When you're doing that, you wear your car out so much that we ended up going down a lap. We missed the lucky dog by one and then got our lucky dog. Then we got crashed when the 18 (Kyle Busch) was spinning out. I was able to recover for a sixth-place finish after all that.
"My hat's off to all the guys on this team. They deserve to be in the final four. We proved it throughout this whole Chase and really this whole year. I'm glad to be sitting here and going for it and have some fun next week."
Logano has five wins, including two in the Chase, 16 top-five finishes and 22 top-10s to his credit this season. He placed fifth (Martinsville), 12th (Texas) and sixth (Phoenix) during the Eliminator Round, finishing only one point behind leader Hamlin.
At Homestead, Logano has only one top-10 in five starts. His average finish of 20.8 there is the worst among the four.
Ryan Newman No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Newman is the only one in the final four that has not won a race this year, but consistency throughout the season as well as his aggressive driving on the final lap at Phoenix has put him in a position to win the championship.
On the final turn of the last lap, Newman, who is in his first season with Richard Childress Racing, bumped into rookie Kyle Larson while the two were battling for 11th position, causing Larson to make slight contact with the wall. Newman crossed the finish line in 11th and advanced into the title round by only one point over Jeff Gordon, who finished second. Larson wound up in 13th.
"I think if Kyle Larson was in my shoes, he would have done the exact same thing," Newman said. "I didn't take him out. He still finished the race...I did what I had to do and tried to keep it as clean as I possibly could. I don't like racing that way, but there's a lot on the line here, and we'll keep digging."
Larson did not comment about his incident with Newman after the race but addressed the issue via a team statement on Monday.
"Coming to the finish, there were a lot of cars racing really hard," Larson said in the statement. "I knew the 31 (Newman) was right around me and knew he needed to gain some spots to keep from getting eliminated from the Chase.
"It's a little upsetting he pushed me up to the wall, but I completely understand the situation he was in and can't fault him for being aggressive there. I think a lot of drivers out here would have done something similar if they were in that position."
Gordon had been the only driver from Hendrick Motorsports left in the Chase. He was attempting to win his fifth series championship.
"We came home second, and I just was hoping that it was going to be enough, but when you hear those words that it wasn't, it's disappointing," Gordon said after the Phoenix race.
Newman has four top-five finishes and 15 top-10s in 2014. His average finish in the Chase has been 9.8. He placed third at Martinsville and 15th at Texas.
At Homestead, Newman has four top-10s in 12 starts, with an average finish of 17.0.
"The fastest car may not win, the best car on a restart may not win. You just never know," Newman said. "It could come right down to fuel mileage and three of the four of us could be coasting on the last lap. You just never know. We're in this hunt."