Championship 4 drivers are tightly bunched at Homestead; Harvick wins pole

at the Loews Hotel on November 17, 2016 in Miami Beach, Florida.November 18, 2016

By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson’s rueful rhetorical question told the story of Friday’s knockout qualifying session at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“What’s a championship race without a little drama?” Johnson asked after earning the 14th starting position during a session fraught with difficulty for the No. 48 team.

Kevin Harvick, who was eliminated from the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup last Sunday at Phoenix, won the pole for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 Championship 4 race (on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET), touring the 1.5-mile track in 30.399 seconds (177.637 mph) during the money round.

The four drivers who will race for the championship, on the other hand, will start in close proximity. Kyle Busch qualified ninth, followed by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards. Joey Logano and Johnson will start side-by-side in 13th and 14th, after Logano was bumped out of the final round by Tony Stewart, who will retire from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing after Sunday’s event.

“Yeah, I told Jimmie, ‘Man, we all suck,’” Logano quipped. “I don’t know what happened. It’s interesting that we’re all starting so close to each other and not towards the front. It’s not what you would expect coming here.

“I’m sure none of us are going to stay back there very long. When this race starts, we’ll all have to move up forward and possibly have to win this race. It has come down to that the last few years and I would expect the same once again.”

It took a heroic effort on Johnson’s part to advance past the first round. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet went out early in the opening round and came away with a disappointing lap. When Johnson tried to improve from 29th fastest near the end of the 20-minute round, Landon Cassill spun in front of Johnson, and the attempt was halted by caution.

On his third attempt, which began with roughly 20 seconds left in the round, Johnson made the second round in 22nd position. Considering the trouble in round one, qualifying 14th was almost a victory for the six-time champion, who will attempt to claim a record-tying seventh title on Sunday.

“Unfortunately, that first outing we just didn’t get a good lap,” Johnson said. “Then I was on a great lap and the caution came out, so we ended up with an additional lap on our tires. We had a nice pickup there for five or six laps on our tires, whatever it was and ended up 14th.

“A bit unlucky, and we kind of hurt ourselves that opening run, and I think to end up 14th on the age of those tires is respectable. Qualifying isn’t my strong suit. I’m much better at racing, so let’s line them up and go racing.”

Busch was philosophical about his starting spot.

“Yeah, it wasn’t certainly the run that we were looking for,” he said. “We were wanting to see a little bit better than that, but we were just too free during qualifying. We just kind of missed the balance a little bit and didn’t quite have the confidence that I needed within the car to get more out of it.

“But it was a decent qualifying effort, I guess, if you consider the big picture of where we’re all at. We’re all pretty tight. Throw a blanket over each other–we’re all right there. At least one camera can probably catch us all when we turn off into Turn 1.

With his second Coors Light Pole Award of the season and the 17th of his career, Harvick wouldn’t mind upstaging the drivers competing for the series title.

“Well, I think for us it’s really the same as it has been,” Harvick said. “You know, you prepare and do all the same things. We’ve done everything the same. Obviously, there’s not as much pressure coming into the weekend as there normally would be, and a lot less to do, so that’s a good thing.

“So yeah, it would be nice to win a race and close the season out. Just a lot of reasons–Tony’s last race, last race with Chevrolet (before Stewart-Haas switches to Ford next year). So, yeah, came here to try to win, same as everybody else. No participation trophies.”

Brad Keselowski qualified second to Harvick at 177.538 mph. Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin will start third and fourth, respectively.

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