Harvick fastest of Championship 4 in Homestead qualifying

Officially, 43 drivers will compete in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But only four — Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman — will race for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in that race.

And the champion will be the one who finishes ahead of the other three on the track Sunday — no bonus points, no scoring twists, just heads-up racing.

Harvick drew first blood on Friday, qualifying fifth in his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet behind polesitter Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski. Hamlin qualified eighth, Logano ninth and Newman 21st.

That gave Harvick bragging rights for Friday, anyway. "Today was really about trying to get a solid starting spot," Harvick said. "And we were able to do that with my Budweiser team. Just really proud of my guys.  We had a really good day today. Just got to keep doing what we have to do and see where it all falls on Sunday."

Logano seemed OK, but not exactly brimming with enthusiasm. "We had an OK day today," he said. " … I felt confident coming into this race track. After our test I felt it went well and we maybe felt we lost a bit after switching to qualifying trim but we are back."

As for Hamlin, the defending Homestead winner sounded an optimistic note.

"Our expectations are to win the race," Hamlin said.  "I think we’re fully capable of doing that.  After some practice tomorrow we’ll have a little bit better idea."

Newman, too, tried to sound an upbeat note after qualifying 21st. "It’s not where we want to be, but we do better fighting back," said Newman.

DANICA DRIVES FORWARD, BACK — While all eyes this weekend understandably are focused on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Danica Patrick raised a few eyebrows by running third behind Brad Keselowski and her Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick in the opening round of practice for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Keselowski’s best lap was 179.004 miles per hour in his No. 2 Team Penske Ford, but Patrick was a close third at 178.767 mph in her No. 10 SHR Chevy. Alas, her strong performance in practice didn’t translate in qualifying, when she was just 32nd fastest.

She's in luck: Patrick running special Florida lottery paint scheme this weekend

Despite the poor starting spot. Patrick said she enjoys the 1.5-mile Homestead track. "It’s a mile and a half, but it’s unique in that it doesn’t have the dogleg," she said. "I’ve only run it once in Sprint Cup, but we got a top-20 (finish) and we’ve run well in Nationwide. We’ve qualified well in that series and had a top-15 in 2012. We finished second in IndyCar, so I’ve got some experience there, just not a lot in Sprint Cup."

Among the four championship contenders, Harvick led the way in practice by being second. He was followed by Ryan Newman (ninth), Denny Hamlin (11th) and Joey Logano (22nd.)

FOND FAREWELL — Ford Motor Co. is losing two of its high-profile drivers after Sunday’s season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with Carl Edwards leaving Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing and Marcos Ambrose parting ways with Richard Petty Motorsports to return to his native Australia to compete in a Roger Penske entry in the V8 Supercar Series.

Jamie Allison, who in his position as director, Ford Racing, is the automaker’s top executive in America, paid farewell to both drivers prior to this weekend’s racing activity.

"Carl Edwards has won more races driving a Ford Fusion than any other driver and has always represented himself, Roush Fenway Racing and Ford in a first-class manner," Allison wrote on FordRacing.com. "We appreciate all Carl has done with Ford, which includes a NASCAR Nationwide Series championship and one of the most memorable Sprint Cup finishes in history. I know we will all miss Carl as he was a great ambassador for our company."

Allison said this about Ambrose: "Since coming to America nine years ago to pursue his dream of competing in NASCAR, Marcos has endeared himself to fans and competitors alike for his personal demeanor and overall respect he has for the sport. He won two Sprint Cup and three Nationwide races for Richard Petty Motorsports and we wish him our very best down under."

VIDEO: Highlights from Kevin Harvick’s race-winning weekend in Phoenix