Jimmie Johnson’s fellow championship contenders displayed a semblance of hope on Friday.
“We can win this race,” Kevin Harvick declared emphatically at Homestead-Miami Speedway after qualifying sixth — one position ahead of Johnson.
Although he’s third in the point standings and trails leader Johnson by 34 points entering Sunday’s season finale, Harvick did not mince words after his qualifying run.
“Our car is fast and I feel really good about the way that it felt and the way that it’s driving,” Harvick said. “I feel really confident in the car and obviously there are going to be guys that have the cars, but I feel confident that we have a car fast enough to win the race.”
Harvick’s average finish of 7.9 at Homestead is the best among the final three drivers battling for the Sprint Cup — and second only to Carl Edwards on the tour. Considering that two of Harvick’s four wins this season came on intermediate tracks, it would not be out of the question for his Richard Childress Racing team to pull off a fifth victory.
But Harvick will have to get by Matt Kenseth first. Kenseth, who won the pole for Sunday’s Ford Ecoboost 400 with a lap of 177.667 mph, is second in the standings with a six-point advantage over Harvick. Similar to Harvick, Kenseth has excelled on 1.5-mile tracks, which have accounted for four of Kenseth’s seven victories in 2013.
Kenseth, who won this race in 2007, is coming off a miserable 23rd-place finish at Phoenix Raceway, which dropped him 28 points behind Johnson. Kenseth said winning the pole was a morale boost to his team.
“I’ve been really spoiled all year,” Kenseth said. “But when you go out and you have a couple of runs and the car doesn’t do what you want and it doesn’t respond to changes, you get frustrated. When things go right, it’s the opposite.
“It lifts your spirits a little bit, it gives you more confidence.”
Still, despite tying a career high with three poles in one season, Kenseth wasn’t nearly as confident in his equipment as Harvick.
“These things are just too hard to win,” Kenseth said. “I’ve got done with practice before and been like, yeah it drives as good as I think we can get it to drive and I think it’s capable, but you never take these things for granted. You’re never like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do it.’ You try to go in with the attitude that you can and you’re capable and you have the equipment and all that stuff.
“Until we get in race trim tomorrow and get out there with all the rest of the car and see what this car drives like — this isn’t one of the cars that we tested so we need to get back and see how it drives and see how it reacts to changes in race trim and things like that. Then I think you’ll have a better idea."
Although Johnson will start the race behind his two fellow title contenders, given the strength of all three teams, he wasn’t surprised the cars lined up in closed proximity to each other.
“We knew it would be that way,” Johnson said. “Last weekend was kind of an odd weekend for the No. 20. They had a tough day. But the No. 29 won and we finished third, so I think that is what you see out of teams that are fighting for a championship.
“We will all be running around each other all day Sunday.”
ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID
Kurt Busch has started on the front row in nine of 36 races this season.
Yet only once has his qualifying effort in the No. 78 Chevy resulted in the pole.
"We got a pole earlier this year at Darlington,” Busch said. “It was a very special day because it really turned our season in the right direction. Now we want to finish as strong as we can.
“One lap is good for qualifying, but I’m going to give these guys everything I have for 267 laps on Sunday night to see if we can’t win with this Furniture Row Chevy."
Busch has enjoyed a solid year behind the wheel of the No. 78 car. After missing the Chase last season, he is currently 10th in the point standings and his 11 top-five finishes with Furniture Row Racing is one short of a career high set in 2002.
Still, after 41 starts in the No. 78 car, Busch is hoping to get his Denver-based operation its second win before he parts ways with the team and moves to Stewart-Haas Racing next year.
"It’s been a great season,” Busch said. “A lot of good things have happened. A lot of things have been learned internally with the team, as well as with myself.
“This year has been very successful. Who knew we would have this many top-fives, this many top-10s from a single-car team out of Colorado?"
Sam Hornish Jr. scraped the wall during the first Nationwide Series practice on Friday morning.
With Saturday’s race to decide the title and eight points separating second-place Hornish from Nationwide Series point leader Austin Dillon, it wasn’t the setback the driver of the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford needed.
“The car bottomed out over the bumps and just took the front tires off the ground and there was no turning it, so we decided that we had to try to run the top a little bit, but I guess I wasn’t planning on it to do that,” Hornish said. “The only issue with getting in the wall at all in practice is that if anything happens to break during the race everybody’s first opinion will be because something happened in practice.”
After posting the fastest lap in the first Nationwide Series practice and qualifying 20th for the Cup, Kyle Larson expressed his affection for Homestead-Miami Speedway:
I wish we had more cookie cutters like @HomesteadMiami Speedway. Best track we go to and we have to wait all year for it!
804: Points scored by the top two truck series teams — with six wins, Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 51 beat ThorSport’s No. 88 for the owner’s championship on a tie-breaker.
14: Seasons Matt Crafton spent in the truck series prior to winning the title. He becomes the 13th different champion on the truck tour.
35: Truck series victories for Kyle Busch.
22.6: The average age for the podium finishers in Friday’s truck race.
At 19, Ryan Blaney became the youngest rookie-of-the-year recipient in the truck series on Friday night.
“It’s pretty cool to do this,” said the Penske Racing driver. “You see people all the time when they win Rookie of the Year and (they) didn’t really race against anybody, but it was so fun racing against Jeb (Burton) and Darrell (“Bubba” Wallace Jr.) this year. I think we were close all year in the rookie deal, and it’s really good. We’re all three great friends and grew up racing each other, and it’s cool to see that we’ve all got a good shot at it and have found really good homes at all the race shops, the race teams we’re at.”