Craven: Good stories for fitting finale

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Thursday, the four drivers set to battle for this year’s Sprint Cup championship assembled at a news conference in Hollywood, Florida.

Each of the four delivered his view of pursuing NASCAR’s ultimate prize, and each represents a different story.

There was no jousting among them; it was clear that, although all four would be OK opposing one another come Sunday, three of the four took time to acknowledge that this year’s final four represented something special, something beyond capturing a ring.

Those three will battle Sunday against perhaps the sport’s most influential character, one who played a primary role in lifting NASCAR to the size and scale it is today.

The Underdog

Martin Truex Jr. and the 78 team are the definition of small-team NASCAR. While all others operate race teams from a small radius in the Carolinas, this group has its headquarters in Colorado.

Making it more impressive is its single-car small-scale approach. More than any other competitor, Martin represents the majority of people who watch the sport.

His 2015 effort has been “blue collar.” It’s not flashy, not overwhelming; he simply gets the job done.

Martin has a very real chance of being champion. I see his chances depending greatly on the team’s ability to stick to the fundamentals — Martin Truex Jr. will come to work Sunday, give you everything he has, race hard, race clean.

What’s not to like about this story?

The Sentimental Favorite

Jeff Gordon, among the most recognized athletes on the planet, enters the final race of a brilliant career with a chance at a fifth title.

Jeff’s advantage is his experience. There will be urgency from the driver behind the wheel of the famed No. 24, but no panic.

Composure comes from experience; composure is earned with championships. I do not expect Jeff to lead the most laps, but I expect Jeff to keep the leaders within sight, close the gap late, empty the tank when it matters most. The end.

His greatest liability could be a caution late, exposing Gordon to a short-run restart, which would favor Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

The Long Shot

Kyle Busch spent the first two months of this season with a cast on each leg.

Returning to competition was questionable, and battling for this year’s championship seemed almost impossible.

I have always admired the talent of Kyle Busch, and I understand firsthand how difficult it is to win in any of NASCAR’s top three series.

Kyle can win in all three in the same weekend, and he makes it look easy.

I also understand how difficult it is to recover from injury and the headwinds of returning to the cockpit and regaining a winning form. Again, Kyle made it look easy.

Kyle’s greatest asset is his pure driving ability, and a one-race leader-take-all situation is perfect for his driving style and ability.

His greatest risk could be green-flag pit stops where Kyle enters and exits pit road with the same aggression as his on-track driving style, elevating the chance of a pit road penalty.

Kyle’s chances depend heavily on a clean day. But no doubt he will be fast.

The Favorite

Kevin Harvick, pursuing a second consecutive title, has the speed, the experience and the confidence to carry away back-to-back titles.

Nothing speaks to Kevin’s ability to dominate a race more than the 2,248 laps led this year.

It’s the first time since Gordon in 1995-96 that a driver has cleared the 2,000-lap mark in back-to-back seasons.

Kevin shared with me Thursday his greatest asset in regard to Sunday’s battle. It’s being the defending champ. Sunday isn’t associated with urgency for him, but simply confidence and desire.

That’s why he is the driver to beat.

The Bottom Line

Sunday represents the final sentence of the final paragraph of Jeff Gordon’s brilliant NASCAR driving career.

During the past 25 years, I’ve been friends with, been teammates with and competed against Jeff Gordon. I can’t, and won’t, pretend to be impartial regarding who I hope carries the final checkered flag of 2015.

Jeff is as genuine, authentic, comfortable in his skin as any human I have ever met. Few people realize the scope of his fundraising and goodwill outside the race car. Few understand the drive and determination in the car.

In the early days, we played racquetball, basketball, softball or even pinball. What I identified from Jeff “the few times I won” was a level of disdain toward losing that I never experienced from another opponent.

If he lost, we played again!

In Atlanta, playing basketball, we dropped the ball, marched away in opposite directions.

Never, in all my years around Jeff, would he allow a disagreement or opposing view to become personal. He is, in my mind, the epitome of a professional.

Jeff and I have gone to Victory Lane 95 times. OK, so I had two of those 95 — but Jeff went out of his way to acknowledge me after both, proving he is more than just a pure athlete, he is a sincere gentleman…

Having him be the first into Victory Lane at Martinsville to congratulate me, to tell me how proud he was, that meant more to me than capturing the grandfather clock.

It was apparent to all of us in the early innings of Jeff’s career that he was capable of amazing things. I can’t honestly say I expected he would vault into the debate of greatest NASCAR driver ever … but he has.

What we know now is no one has ever entered our sport and had a greater influence of change, a greater ability to transform and enhance the product than Jeff Gordon has.

What we know now is Jeff Gordon and his amazing body of work represent the highest level of talent, commitment, passion and grace.

Jeff has received the accolades — acknowledgement of all our appreciation — at every stop in the 2015 season. Many symbols, many gifts have been given to him to honor all that he has done and all that he represents.

The one going-away gift I believe he deserves most, though, must be earned. How perfect would it be to turn out the lights on a spectacular career Sunday night with Jeff Gordon holding the Sprint Cup Series championship trophy?

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