You can hear them, all the way from Homestead.
The snarl of stock cars going 180 mph. The rumble of massive haulers. The thunder of hundreds of tricked-out roadhouses, aka recreational vehicles. Converging at the racetrack for the finale of the year-long traveling circus known as NASCAR.
The chase ends here, in deep South Florida, a curious spot for crowning the champion of a sport with roots in the moonshine-running Deep South.
Up from the wreckage of Hurricane Andrew came Ralph Sanchez’s once-mocked vision of motorsports nirvana, a track that’s been reconfigured three times, from a flat, rectangular layout to a 1.5-mile banked oval that drivers praise as an equalizer which rewards skill. Homestead-Miami Speedway has hosted Ford Championship Weekend since 2002.
It’s also Miami Book Fair International weekend downtown at Miami-Dade College, so this is the temporary capital of gearheads and eggheads, the hub for poets of the page and pavement, a place where Jimmie Johnson and Joyce Carol Oates can simultaneously do their thing. (Her favorite sport is boxing, by the way.) Isn’t this strange alignment, this opportunity to be deafened and enlightened on the same day, one of the prime reasons we live here despite the humidity?
Racing and reading, reading and racing — whether you want the autograph of Tony Stewart or T.C. Boyle, whether your heart skips a beat at the sight of the checkered flag or first-edition classics — or both — you’ve got to partake.
The Sprint Cup championship format has had many confusing iterations, but it’s in the third season of a Final Four-type elimination bracket, which makes it easier to understand for anyone familiar with the NCAA college basketball tournament.
The Sweet Sixteen has been narrowed down to a quartet of contenders, and whoever beats the other three takes home the Cup in Sunday’s Ford Ecoboost 400. Winner take all amps up the drama. The format also applies to the Camping World Truck Series on Friday and the XFINITY Series on Saturday.
Six-time Cup winner Johnson is NASCAR’s shining star but he’s been underrated because of his steady consistency and vanilla personality. None of today’s drivers are as colorful as the swashbucklers of yesteryear, but they can’t be when their jumpsuits are plastered with the logos of a dozen sponsors.
Johnson will attempt to match Richard “The King” Petty and Dale “The Enforcer” Earnhardt as best ever with seven titles. Of the 26 tracks on the Sprint Cup series calendar, Homestead-Miami is one of four on which Johnson has never won. He always owned such a substantial points lead going into the final race that he didn’t have to.
When asked if he belongs on the Mount Rushmore of racing, Johnson demurred.
“I’m not climbing into the car thinking, ‘I’ve got to win No. 7,’ ” Johnson said. “Of course I’d love to do that. We start each year asking, ‘Can this be the year?’ It would be an honor to join Petty and Earnhardt.
“But I’m more focused on winning the race. I’ve been so caught up in talking setups and poring through data. I’m in race mode. I’m trying to win Sunday. That’s my mindset.”
He will be challenged by defending champ Kyle Busch, who won the race and the title in 2015, as Kevin Harvick did in 2014. Busch used to be one of NASCAR’s “bad boys” but who has mellowed since he became a father. He had only good things to say about his rivals.
“I’m not like those UFC fighters who egg each other on,” Busch said. “If you do that you’re just going to get hit harder.”
Joey Logano gets a shot at winning the first Sprint Cup championship for the Ford manufacturer since Kurt Busch in 2004.
“We had a very fast car here last year and led a lot of laps and that gives me confidence,” Logano said. “You can find motivation in plenty of places — from the people who love you, from the people who hate you. I was in the shop last week and I know I want to do it for my team.”
Carl Edwards came within seconds of winning his first Cup here in 2011 in the closest championship finish in NASCAR history, but lost the race and the season points tiebreaker to Stewart.
“That was tough because I gave it everything I had and our team made no mistakes,” said Edwards, driver of the No. 19 Toyota.
He said the experience from five years ago has him “galvanized” to race fast.
“It’s a straightforward track so there’s a lot of driver options and I’ll be able to apply everything I know,” he said. “You’ll see people use the whole track earlier in the race.”
The modest Edwards said he has every intention of prevailing when he crosses the finish line after 400 tense miles on Sunday. But like everybody else in South Florida for a momentously loud and literary weekend, “I’m just absolutely thrilled to be here.”