|Strong Texas performance a good sign for Johnson at Homestead|
Homestead-Miami Speedway is one of only four tracks Johnson has yet to win at since he began running full-time in the Cup series. That’s 70 wins since 2002, none at Homestead. Along the way he’s grabbed six Cup titles, which is part of the reason he’s been in situations where he really wasn’t trying to win in the final race of the season at Homestead. In many of those instances, Johnson just had to play it safe and points-race.
Now Johnson can go all out as he’s the furthest back in points since he began Cup racing. He crossed Michigan off his ’things to do list’ in June, and between winning at Texas three weeks ago and what we saw Saturday during the final practice, he’s clearly the driver to beat on Sunday.
But the big story everyone wants to talk about is who is going to win the Sprint Cup among the Championship 4. The race itself, and who will win, almost becomes secondary to most in NASCAR Nation unless it’s a combination effort like Tony Stewart in 2011 when he held off runner-up Carl Edwards to win the race and the Sprint Cup.
Kevin Harvick was posted as the 9-to-2 favorite to win the race at the beginning of the week, as well as the 3-to-2 favorite to win the Sprint Cup, but he didn’t look nearly as intimidating during practice as he did on the other 1.5-mile tracks this season. Maybe because the paper-clip configuration and progressive banking make it unique to the others, but they were trying all types of set-ups during both of Saturday’s practices and couldn’t find that consistency they were searching for.
Harvick was fastest in the early session and then was eighth in the final session, but what had made him so intimidating to everyone else was the speeds they gained over 10-consecutive laps. He was blowing the doors off everyone in that category all season on the 1.5-mile tracks. His only win on the 10 1.5s this season was at Charlotte in October, but his confidence was high going into each of those races because of those stellar average speeds.
It’s not to say Harvick was slow, because he wasn’t. In the 10-consecutive lap category he was fourth best in the morning and seventh best in the afternoon. Any other team might be thrilled with that, but it might be kind of a downer for the No. 4 team because they have been the big dog in practice. What makes it even worse is that this 1.5-mile race is for the title. This is not the time for a sub-par practice. They raised the bar all season, now they're just a little bit under it.
Denny Hamlin, meanwhile, has to be thrilled with their practices where they had the third best 10-consecutive laps average during both sessions. The No. 11 team consistently ran fast laps and got their car looking better than it has all season. Remember, Hamlin’s team has underperformed on 1.5s all year -- only one top-5 finish -- but he’s also the only Championship 4 driver to win at Homestead, and he’s done it twice, including last season for his only win of 2013.
The entire No. 11 team has to be excited about their chances to not only win the Sprint Cup, but also win the race. Why not? Crew Chief Darian Grubb got the combo special done for as Stewart’s crew chief in 2011. They’ve also got the best pit crew in the series. And now they've got a very fast car on the long runs.
Both Harvick and Hamlin will have a rough Saturday night trying to sleep as they go for their first title, but Harvick’s might be a little tougher not just because of his practices, but also because the No. 11 looks stronger than ever, and maybe even better than his car.
If allowed to make a daily-double here in Las Vegas, like horse racing, for the race winner to the Cup winner, my play would be 11, 48 with 11. Johnson is the driver to beat, but Hamlin may be forced into winning and racing harder because Harvick is surely to be on his tail, just like Edwards was with Stewart in 2011.
Of course there's also Joey Logano and Ryan Newman racing for the title. Logano has a better resume on 1.5s this season as far as consistency goes, and Newman is right there with a 10th-place average on the 1.5s this season, but they didn't wow in practices. However, Logano's car did show noticeable improvements after his teammate, Brad Keselowski, shared some notes before Saturday's early session.
The best long shots to consider based on practices are Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer.
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Logano fastest in final practice among title contenders
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) -- Joey Logano, trying to help team owner Roger Penske to a sweep of the major American racing titles, was the fastest of the four championship contenders in Saturday's final practice at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
''To be able to accomplish this would be really quite something, and that was really our goal from the beginning of the season,'' said Walt Czarnecki, executive vice president of Penske Corp. and the listed car owner of Logano's Ford.Team Penske won the IndyCar championship with Will Power in September, and a victory by Logano in Sunday's season finale would make Penske the only team owner to complete the sweep. A first-time champion will be crowned when Logano competes against Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman, with the Sprint Cup going to the highest-finishing driver.
''Maybe we didn't verbalize it quite that way, but we really felt we were going to be competitive in all of these series, and the results have demonstrated that.''
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