Martin Truex Jr.

Denny Hamlin grabs Homestead pole, Martin Truex Jr. also on front row

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Denny Hamlin was last to make a final qualifying run but took the pole for Sunday’s and championship-deciding Ford EcoBoost 400.

Hamlin (173.980 mph) knocked Martin Truex Jr. (173.952) off the pole with a bonsai run around the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Love this racetrack, wish we would have a chance, but it’ll be another day and another year for us,” Hamlin told NBCSN. “I want to win, that’s all I care about.”

This is Hamlin’s second pole of his career (and second in the last three races) at Homestead, where he’s also a two-time Cup winner.

Truex is the highest qualifying driver of the four Championship 4 contestants.

“It was a good day overall,” Truex told NBCSN. “Hopefully, we’ll just make some minor adjustments (in Saturday’s two practice sessions) and get comfortable and get ready to race on Sunday.”

The other drivers are: Kyle Busch (qualified third, 173.930), Brad Keselowski (fifth, 172.452) and Kevin Harvick was the slowest of the four (ninth, 171.876).

“Not a bad lap, definitely was pole-worthy, so I hate that we weren’t able to get the No. 1 pit stall,” Busch told NBCSN. “I think we’re further ahead than we were 2015 when we won the whole thing.”

Keselowski told NBCSN: “It sure doesn’t feel bad, but there’s a long way to go. It’s just one day of a three-day weekend. … This is like a poker game. This is the deal, it’s qualifying. Tomorrow you start to see the turn of the cards with race trim. We’re not in a bad spot, not where we want to be, we still need a little speed obviously to run with the Toyotas, but we’re kind of first in class (among Ford teams) today.”

Harvick said to NBCSN: “Not exactly how I wanted it to go, but all-in-all I think we’re going to be fine. It’s not like we’re starting 39th or something.”

In addition to Hamlin, non-championship drivers that qualified in the top 12 include Matt Kenseth (fourth, 172.678), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (sixth, 172.359), Kyle Larson (seventh, 172.205), Kurt Busch (eighth, 172.106), Daniel Suarez (10th, 171.789), Ryan Blaney (11th, 171.255) and Trevor Bayne (12th, 171.124).

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start last because of an engine change in practice Friday. … Danica Patrick, who announced she will race next year in the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 before retiring, qualified 25th. … Sunday’s race will have 39 cars in the field.

Click here for qualifying results.

Kyle Busch fastest in first Cup practice in Miami

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Championship 4 driver Kyle Busch was fastest in the first Cup Series practice for the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Busch posted a top speed of 172.695 mph around Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led Martin Truex Jr. (172.529), Kevin Harvick (171.865), Kyle Larson (171.217) and Denny Hamlin (170.854).

Truex and Harvick are among the Championship 4.

The fourth driver of the group, Brad Keselowski, was 21st fastest at 168.919 mph.

None of the championship drivers made more than seven laps in the session.

Larson had the best 10-lap average at 165.012 mph.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is making his last Cup start, was 14th fastest. Earnhardt will go to a backup engine after burning a piston early.

Matt Kenseth was 12th fastest.

Click here for the practice report.

NASCAR America: Martin Truex Jr. feels like he’s ‘already won’ with his career

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Head games won’t work on Martin Truex Jr. before Sunday’s Cup championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The reason why is simple.

“I’ve already won,” Truex told NASCAR America’s Marty Snider. “I’ve already won in general. I know where I’m at. I know we have what it takes to get it done. I’m not going to let anybody stand in the way of that with words. Your talk is cheap, show me. I’m ready to just go out on the track and get the job done.”

It’s a very zen answer and attitude for Truex, who is gearing up for his second chance at a Cup title. He made it to the Championship 4 in 2015 but finished fourth in the standings.

Truex is the favorite to win the title Sunday after he earned a career-best seven victories this season. Six of them came on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead.

“Any year but the last four years we’d be the champion right now,” Truex said, referring to the first four years of the elimination format. “So that in my opinion is a huge accomplishment. I’d never seen myself years ago getting to this level. … It’s all kind of a bonus.”

Those seven wins came amid a season where his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, experienced a recurrence of her ovarian cancer; a team member died unexpectedly prior to the Kansas playoff race (which Truex won) and crew chief Cole Pearn’s best friend died the week before the No. 78 won at Watkins Glen.

To add to it, team owner Barney Visser won’t be in attendance Sunday as he recovers from surgery following a heart attack last week.

“I don’t need to win this championship to be anything,” Truex said. “I want to win it for me, I want to win it for all the right reasons. I don’t need to win it for fame or fortune or notoriety. I want it for me, I want it for my team because we deserve it and so people think we’re the best.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.

 

NASCAR America: Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick preview Cup title race

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Two of the four Cup championship participants, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, are Ford drivers.

Both are competing for their second Cup titles. Harvick has been in the Championship 4 three times since the inception of the elimination playoff format in 2014 when he won the title. This is Keselowski’s first time in the Championship 4.

The drivers sat down with Marty Snider and Kelli Stavast at the championship media day in Miami ahead of Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Stavast asked Harvick how big a deal it was that he won at Texas two weeks ago after passing Martin Truex Jr. under green with less than 10 to go.

Six of Truex’s seven wins this year have come at 1.5-mile tracks, which is the length of Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I think it was very significant,” Harvick said. “I feel like we’ve had the best car the last few times we’ve been on the mile-and-a-half tracks, haven’t capitalized on it every time. But the win at Texas, you almost don’t need to say anything because of the fact you passed the fastest guy in town to win the race.”

Snider asked Keselowski what his biggest concern will be on track Sunday that he can’t control.

“Probably the biggest thing that worries me that’s out of my control is just the cars that are really slow,” Keselowski said. “Some of the back marker cars and some of their strategies and so forth.”

Watch Harvick’s video above and Keselowski’s video below for the full interviews.

Cup championship crew chiefs worried about tire allotment in Miami

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A 2015 Cup championship trophy sits in crew chief Adam Stevens’ office so he can see it every day.

“I kind of like to be reminded every time I come to work what we’re racing for and what the hard work we put in day in and day out and night in and night out and through all the grind of the season what it’s all for,’’ Stevens said.

He seeks another championship trophy with his driver, Kyle Busch, among the four racing for a title in Sunday’s season finale in Miami (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

The challenge for Busch and Stevens will be more than Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski for the championship. Stevens and other crew chiefs are concerned about the tire limits this weekend.

Cup teams will be allowed nine sets for the race plus the set they use in qualifying. Last year, teams had 12 sets available plus they could also use a set from practice.

Fewer sets of tires could mean more difficult decisions for crew chiefs, especially if there are a number of cautions.

“I think it changes a lot,’’ said Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick.

Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

Childers noted that in 2014 when he and Harvick won the title, they used 11 sets of tires in the 400-mile race.

“I don’t feel like there’s enough tires,’’ Childers said of the allotment for Sunday’s race. “The last thing you want to do is run out of tires with 40 laps to go and not be able to do anything or race for a championship at the end. I’ve been trying to push a little bit, see if we can’t get an extra set for the race.’’

Teams were allowed fewer tires in half of the playoff races this season compared to last year. NASCAR cut allotments for some races after examining tire usage by teams with Goodyear. NASCAR sought to have the number of sets available closer to what had been used in previous races.

The concern among crew chiefs is that tires could be critical because how much they wear at Homestead-Miami  Speedway. Greg Stucker, Goodyear director of racing, notes that the track has become one of the highest wear tracks on the circuit.

That’s just one of many concerns crew chiefs have entering the weekend. Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, has additional worries. His team has struggled to find speed in the playoffs. Keselowski has finished ahead of Truex twice in the first nine playoff races but neither were at 1.5-mile speedways, the length of Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Keselowski has been slower than Truex and Harvick in green flag speed and on restarts in all four of the playoff races on 1.5-mile tracks this season.

“We’ve just got to go down there and make speed,’’ Wolfe said. “That’s kind of as simple as it is. I feel good about what we’re bringing down there. I don’t know if it’ll be enough, but I’m proud of the effort that we’ve put in.’’

Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn arrive as what some will view as the favorite with seven victories this season, including six on 1.5-mile speedways. Pearn is fine with that role. It’s much better than in 2015, when the team entered the season finale as an underdog.

“I think at that point we were just thrilled to have made it, and I think we didn’t really know what to do,’’ he said. “It was like a dog chasing the car, we finally caught the car and we didn’t know what to do with it. 

“This past year and the year before we really tried to take more time and get ourselves prepared for Homestead itself. So I think, obviously, we won’t see that until this weekend, but it’s been in our mind for a long time, and really trying to get ourselves prepared for this race and probably have put more emphasis on it than we would have if we hadn’t have gone through what we did in 2015.’’