Friday, November 15, 2013

Chasing the Championship: Previewing the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway

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Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick. Credit: NASCAR via Getty Images 
Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick: One of them will be the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion. Four hundred miles separate one from greatness and the other two from a place on the sidelines for the banquet in Las Vegas next month.

This weekend our Stacey Owens, Stephanie Stuart and Rebecca Kivak preview the three drivers in the hunt for the title.

1. Jimmie Johnson
by: Stacey Owens

“We can control our own destiny.”

Jimmie Johnson likes the position he’s in heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He doesn’t have to win the race to win his sixth championship, but he believes that the best place to run throughout the Ford EcoBoost 400 is up front.

When asked how he intends to approach this weekend’s race, Johnson took a page from his most recent win. “If I look back to our Texas performance, we found a way to race smart, stay out of trouble, and still get the race won. I would love to win the race and win the championship, but we’ll just have to see how things develop in the race.”

Johnson has 66 wins to his credit, but none of those wins have come at the 1.5-mile South Florida track. Homestead-Miami Speedway is one of only five tracks where Johnson and the No. 48 team haven’t won. As much as he’d like to cross that track off his bucket list, Johnson is more focused on the larger picture.

“It’s not so much that individual win, but we need to go down there and be prepared and treat Friday and Saturday like we need to win the race so we can make the car as comfortable and as fast as possible to give us all our options on Sunday.”

In his 12 races in Miami, Johnson has four top fives, seven top 10s and two poles, but his average finish is 15.3. His driver rating of 95.1 is sixth-best among Chase drivers. Those numbers may not be stellar, but realistically, they don’t have to be. Even if Matt Kenseth, who trails Johnson by 28 points, wins the race and leads the most laps, Johnson only needs to finish 23rd to secure the big prize.

“Defending is the place of control of the points lead. There’s a lot of pressure on myself and the team to get things done. We’ll deal and manage that as the weekend goes on. But excited to have this opportunity. Again, we’re in the position that we want to be in, that  I’m sure any driver would want to be in.”

Yes, Johnson is right where he wants to be — in the driver’s seat.

2. Matt Kenseth (-28)
by: Stephanie Stuart

What a difference a year makes. Cliche, right? But ask Matt Kenseth, and he'll tell you - one year really can make a difference. This time last year, he came into Homestead-Miami sitting sixth in the race for the Sprint Cup championship in a partially sponsored car, which he was preparing to vacate at the end of the season. He had won three times, even winning the Daytona 500, but it wasn't good enough to secure full-time funding for the team. Kenseth was preparing to take his career to Joe Gibbs Racing. He was preparing for the unknown.

Many racing insiders wondered what the unknown would hold. How long would it take Kenseth to form a working relationship with new crew chief Jason Ratcliff? How would he react on-track, not hearing longtime spotter Mike Calinoff on his radio? How would driving a Toyota vs. a Ford affect his racing?

We got the answers to all of those questions just three weeks into the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Kenseth won the race in dominating fashion, and then proceeded to give a somewhat emotional interview in victory lane, something we're not used to seeing from the usually stoic 41 year-old. After that win, the No. 20 team's season took off. They amassed six more wins leading up to the season finale at Homestead-Miami, including a controversial win at Kansas where NASCAR docked the driver for an underweight connecting rod in the engine, a part that the team never touched. NASCAR later overturned its ruling and scaled back the penalties, realizing that the team had nothing to do with the part in question.

So with seven wins, Kenseth should be a shoe in for the Cup right? Unfortunately, it's not that easy. When the No. 20 team was good, they were unbeatable, but when they were bad, they were really bad. Starting off the season with a 37th-place finish in the Daytona 500 didn't help the cause. Another bad finish a few weeks later at Bristol didn't help, either. It's like the team ran hot or cold. There was no middle ground, which will be obviously be something they will focus on in 2014.

After starting the Chase as the No. 1 seed, Kenseth looked to be the one to beat, as he won the first two races at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, but as the Chase wore on, the No. 20 team began to show signs of weakness. Finishes of 11th, 20th and 23rd allowed always threatening Jimmie Johnson to overtake Kenseth as the points leader coming into Texas, and a win by Johnson at Texas allowed him to leave Texas with the lead, with Kenseth only seven points behind. A dismal day in Phoenix allowed Johnson to stretch his lead to 28 points coming into this weekend's season finale.

The championship may seem out of grasp to some, but don't tell that to Kenseth. He's ready to give it all he's got this weekend as the curtain closes on the 2013 season. "I'm looking forward to this weekend," he said when asked about his thoughts on winning the title. "I'm hoping we can put together a really good effort here this weekend and finish the season off on a positive note no matter what happens with the points. Hopefully we can finish it off with if not a win, a good top-five finish and go run good and lead some laps and do the things we know we can do."

While Kenseth knows it's going to take quite an effort to win the title this weekend, he wants to see it done the right way. "I'm not a guy that roots for teams to lose," he said when asked about the possibility of Johnson having problems during the race. "I'm kind of a guy that roots for my favorite teams, so I'm probably more rooting to go out and dominate and win the race than anything else. If he has problems, I guess I wouldn't feel bad about it. I would take it, because we've had our share of problems this year, a lot of things that were just circumstances."

Look for Kenseth to be a contender at Homesetead-Miami this weekend. He's won there before, and the speedway is a 1.5-miler, which is to the Toyota driver's liking. Kenseth remains relaxed and confident as he prepares to do battle with Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick on Sunday. One thing remains constant though - what a difference a year makes.

3. Kevin Harvick (-34)
by: Rebecca Kivak

After 14 years and 23 Sprint Cup wins, Kevin Harvick will close the door on his tenure with Richard Childress Racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The question is: will Harvick leave RCR as the 2013 Sprint Cup champion?

Sitting 34 points behind five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, Harvick knows he’s a longshot to win his first Sprint Cup title.

But one thing’s for certain: the driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet will go all out in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, ready to capitalize if Johnson or Kenseth should falter.

“I think for us, we've had so many strange things happen throughout my career at the last minute, you at least have to play everything out,” Harvick said at the title contenders’ press conference Thursday. “Just the type of team we are, we race up until the last lap. You just never know what's going to happen.

“Realistically the only things we can control are what we do. It's definitely a really, really longshot. But we'll control the things that are in our control and see how it all falls,” Harvick said.

Harvick has four wins under his belt this year, half of which have come in the Chase (Kansas and Phoenix). Not only does he carry momentum from his Phoenix victory into the season finale, but he also boasts an impressive resume at Homestead.

In 12 starts, Harvick has only finished outside the top 10 twice at the 1.5-mile track. He has five top fives, including two runner-up finishes, and an average finish of 7.9. In his last five starts, Harvick has finished no worse than eighth, where he finished in his last trip to Homestead one year ago.

As his time with Richard Childress Racing draws to a close, Harvick will wear a custom-designed helmet highlighting memorable moments from his career with the organization. Next year he will move on to Stewart-Haas Racing.

For a driver who was labeled a “lame duck” entering this season, Kevin Harvick has proven he is anything but. There’s no better way he’d rather end his tenure with Richard Childress Racing than by hoisting the championship trophy at Homestead.

5 comments :

I think the championship is in the bag for Jimmie Johnson but a first time win for him at Homestead-Miami Speedway would be icing on the cake! Great report, Stacey! EC

Thanks, EC! I appreciate your support immensely. Means a lot. ;)

good job this year, keep it up next year!

As long as someone doesn't take out JJ like Coulter did to Crafton last night or his engine blows up, I think #6 is in store for Jimmie Johnson. In 30 years I think JJ will universally be accepted as one of if not the greatest driver of all time. The competition is just so much greater now than it was when the "Legends" of the sport competed. Nice job Stacey, I've really enjoyed reading your articles. Well done to the other ladies as well.

Thanks, Eric! We all appreciate your reading our posts. Check back with us on Monday for post-race analysis.

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