With all the attention focused on the four drivers attempting to take NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series title, the first four rows starting Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 will be drivers out of the championship chase.
Kevin Harvick took the pole for Sunday’s season finale in Friday’s qualifying session at Homestead-Miami Speedway with Brad Keselowski joining him on the first row when the green drops.
Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards were the only two drivers of the ‘Championship 4’ to advance to the final round of qualifying Friday and the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates start together on Row 5 after finishing ninth and 10th respectively.
Joey Logano and Jimmy Johnson didn’t make it out of the second round of qualifying but are still in the top half of the field and kick things off Sunday on Row 7.
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"It certainly wasn’t the run we were looking for, we wanted to see a little better than that," said Busch, who won the Ford 400 and the Cup title here last year.
"It was a decent qualifying effort, I guess, if you look at the big picture and where we’re all at. We’re all pretty tight. You could throw a blanket over all of us. One camera can probably catch us all coming into Turn 1."
Said Edwards: "I don’t think any of us want to start this far back. I think we all had bigger hopes than that. It is what it is; pit stall selection will be pretty even, I guess."
Johnson had to make a mad dash at the end of the opening round of qualifying to move into the top 15. Logano finished qualifying 13th, Johnson a spot behind.
"We made the most of the situation we were in," said Johnson, who is vying to become just the third driver to ever win seven Cup titles joining Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Said Logano: "We’re not that far back, we’ll be OK. This is a place you can pass, it’s a wide race track. I feel comfortable where our car is and we’ll work on it some more [Saturday]. … It is interesting where everyone is starting. It’s not something you would expect. I don’t think we’ll stay back there very long once the race starts."
The qualifying session was split into three rounds with the 24 cars which posted the fastest single lap within the 25-minute opening round moving onto Round 2.
So, with Johnson finishing 22nd, he moved into the second round with a chance to improve his starting slot while Aric Almirola – who finished 25th – did not.
"Qualifying just isn’t my thing," Johnson said about having less than a minute on the track to move into Round 2. "We’re so much better at racing. Now we’ll get ready to line them up and race."
Almirola will start Sunday’s race from the 25th position with the bottom of the field determined based on their slot in the first round.
The second round lasted nine minutes with the top 12 drivers moving into the final session to determine the top of Sunday’s opening grid.
Harvick will have the best view – at least at the start of the race after rolling a top lap of 177.637 mph around the 1.5-mile oval.
"We’re doing the same thing we always do, although there’s not as much pressure this weekend as there normally would be," Harvick said. "It would be nice to win the race, close the season out. … I came here to win the race, same as everyone else. There are no participation trophies."
▪ It’s not just the drivers in the Championship 4 who are feeling the pressure of the Ford Championship Weekend.
"Well, I'm not nervous or anything," said Joe Gibbs, who owns the teams for both Busch and Edwards.
"I just walked into the women's restroom. No harm, no foul."
Gibbs is one of three owners with rides in the Cup finals as Rick Hendrick (Johnson) and Roger Penske (Logano) joined him in the press room Friday afternoon to talk about the upcoming race.
Penske, celebrating his 50th season in auto racing, is trying to become the first owner of an Indy Car and NASCAR Cup series champion in the same year.
"For me and for Team Penske, and certainly after 50 years, I probably should get the hell out of here," Penske said. "But I've got some work to do just to try to keep you guys honest."
Johnson, obviously, is gunning for NASCAR history in his quest for seven championships.
"I still say Jimmie will get more credit when he’s done than he’ll get when he’s driving," Hendrick said.
▪ The speedway announced the grandstand for Sunday’s 400 is sold out for the third consecutive years although tickets in the ‘Pit Road Cabanas’ and ‘FanVision Fan Zone’ remain for sale. Tickets for Saturday’s Xfinity race are also still available.
▪ One of the more popular aspects of coming to Homestead is the annual fishing tournament held on the infield lake. Put on by Hall of Fame drag racer – and South Florida native – Darrell Gwynn, the ‘Hot Rods and Reels’ tournament pits drivers, owners and support personnel in pursuit of the biggest bass.
And it’s not just the fishing that brings in the likes of Richard Childress, Ryan Newman and Bobby Allison: It’s the chance to help out.
Gwynn, paralyzed since a crash in England in 1990, holds the tournament to benefit his chapter of the Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis.
One of the beneficiaries of the Darrell Gwynn Quality of Life Chapter is 7-year-old Manny Martinez who was presented with a custom wheelchair. Martinez, paralyzed before birth because of a stroke, had grown out of his old chair and his new one allows him to be more mobile.
"Each year I am humbled by the sponsors, drivers, owners and our friends at the Homestead-Miami Speedway," Gwynn said in a statement, "who always help us stand up for those who can’t."
Allison’s team won Friday’s event with three bass caught totaling 4.61 pounds. The largest fish caught weighed in at 2.62 pounds by driver Martin Truex Jr.
▪ Six local charities will be honored before Sunday’s race with the Homestead-Miami Speedway awarding grants totaling $40,000 to efforts which "support youth development."
Those receiving the grants include:
▪ A Chance for Therapy which helps children with incurable neurological disabilities in Miami-Dade County.
▪ Camillus House’s Youth Housing Initiative which provides emergency and transitional housing for youth who are homeless and/or emerging from the foster care system.
▪ FIU Foundation Formula SAE is a student-run organization which "focuses on applying engineering principles learned in the classroom to creating an open cockpit race car."
▪ Hispanic Business Initiative Fund benefits "young entrepreneurs and low-to-moderate income level families to work on developing a solid foundation for opening up a business."
▪ Lauren’s Kids aim is to "help spread the ‘Safer, Smarter Schools’ abuse prevention curriculum to more children in the community."
▪ Miami Bridge Youth and Family Services provides emergency shelter for "more than 1,000 children who are runaway, at risk, neglected, abandoned, abused, truant and/or in foster care."
Ford Championship Weekend
NASCAR at Homestead
When: Championship races for Sprint Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series, Friday through Sunday.
Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway, 1 Speedway Boulevard, Homestead.
The track: 1.5 miles, paved surface. Capacity 46,000. Track lap record set by Jamie McMurray at 181.111 mph in 2003 qualifying.
Format: The three championship events are races within races. There will be an individual champion for each of the three races, but the season-long champion must come from the top four drivers, based on points, entering the races.
Defending champions: Trucks 200: Erik Jones for the season series, Matt Crafton for the individual race; Xfinity 300: Chris Buescher for the season series, Kyle Larson for the individual race; Sprint Cup 400: Kyle Busch for both the season series and the individual race.
Tickets: Call 305-230-5255.
Saturday: Gates open 9:30 a.m. Xfinity Series qualifying, 11:15 a.m. (NBCSN); Sprint Cup Series final practice at 1 p.m. (NBCSN); Xfinity Series Ford EcoBoost 300 at 3:45 p.m. (NBCSN).
Sunday: Gates open 10 a.m. Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at 2:30 p.m. (NBC).