The race schedule that turns NASCAR’s Sprint Cup into transcontinental worker ants marching from track to track weekly makes any testing chance important. All the more so when they can run at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as several teams did Wednesday.
It’s the last plateau on the Cup championship climb — get in The Chase; stay in The Chase; finish highest at Homestead, where the Ford EcoBoost 400 goes green on Nov. 22.
“At Homestead, it’s possibly the most important race of the whole year,” Joey Logano said. “If we’re coming down here racing for a championship like we were last year, it all comes down to this one race track. Think about some of the guys who are here today — Denny’s here, we’re here, (No.) 4’s here, (No.) 31’s here. Those are the guys who were racing for the final four last year.”
Respectively, that’s Denny Hamlin, defending Ford EcoBoost 400 champion and current points leader Kevin Harvick (No. 4), and Ryan Newman (No. 31). Also running laps Wednesday afternoon, once the track dried from the carpet of wetness laid by the morning rainfall, were Dale Earnhardt Jr., third in the points; Kyle Larson, who lamented a run of bad luck that’s left him with one top five finish; and Clint Bowyer.
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“We’re looking to find some speed as a whole [Hendrick Motorsports] group,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve just got to work on the balance of the car, fix issues the car has in the corners. These guys have a list of things they want to go through, that they want to try. It’s just a standard, typical test, try to learn something that’ll benefit you here but at other tracks, too.”
Earnhardt didn’t make the final four last year, the first year The Chase for The Cup format assured the championship would be decided at Homestead. Harvick outraced Newman for the win and the title while a gamble on tire strategy left Hamling back in seventh.
Problems on late pit stops, including the car falling off the jack on the last stop, pushed Logano out of contention as his Team Penske pit crew described so many degrees of dejection. He finished 16th in the race, fourth in the points.
Logano, who buffed the wall earlier in the race, dismisses the idea he was a pit stop from the title with, “I made my fair share of mistakes in that race. All of us made mistakes in that race. We learn from our mistakes…going through something like that is good for us.
“I’m still proud of what we did. The tough part is knowing you scored the most points throughout the chase but we finished fourth. That’s the toughest part to swallow. We may not have gotten the result we wanted or deserved. But it is what it is.”
Logano sported sunglasses and the confident gait of a star with wins in two of his last three races as well as a season-opening Daytona 500 win. Harvick’s two wins and consistency — 17 top five finishes, 21 top 10s in 24 races — pushes him to a 43-point lead on Logano.
“Kevin’s fast still. He’s finished second 10 times this year,” Logano said. “That says a lot about the speed they have in their cars. But I’m also proud of what we’ve done this year with the three wins… I think we’re right where we need to be.”
Earnhardt said, “I think the competition’s caught up to all of us. We’ll see when we get into The Chase. Everybody’s not running everything they’ve got right now. Once you get into The Chase, you start to see the truth.”