HOMESTEAD, Fla. — If qualifying is any indication of how the championship race might shape up in Sunday’s NASCAR season finale, Jimmie Johnson appears to have an edge over Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.
Kasey Kahne turned a lap of 176.904 mph to win the pole at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday, but the focus was on the Sprint Cup series’ three title contenders.
Johnson qualified sixth, while Harvick was 28th and Hamlin was 38th on the speed chart — although he’ll actually line up in the 37th spot on Sunday because of NASCAR’s qualifying rules for teams that aren’t in the top 35 in points.
Hamlin, who has a 15-point lead over Johnson and 46-point lead over Harvick going into Sunday, wasn’t panicking.
“Our car’s going to be fine tomorrow, we know that,” Hamlin said. “And this is a track where you can pass. We’re looking forward to that part of it.”
A poor qualifying effort certainly didn’t matter at Homestead last year, when Hamlin won the race after qualifying 38th. And Hamlin has put himself in position to win the championship this year despite not qualifying particularly well all season.
“Fridays have just never been our strong suit,” Hamlin said. “So we’ve got to battle back again.”
Still, it’s another potential reason to worry for a driver who already is having his nerves tested. While qualifying might not be an accurate indication of how fast Hamlin’s car might be in the race, he’ll still have to avoid trouble as he picks his way through the field Sunday.
Harvick isn’t typically a strong qualifier either.
“I thought we would actually be a touch better — but not much,” Harvick said.
Earlier Friday, Johnson joked that he, Hamlin and Harvick have been having a “a world class pillow fight” in qualifying of late. All three drivers have qualified 17th or worse for each of the last two races, although Johnson was happy to break out of that mold.
“It’s not ideal, but I think we’ve all shown that you don’t have to qualify up front to run up front,” Johnson said. “If you had a scale of risk, the further back you start, the higher up the scale of the risk it would take you than (qualifying) up front.”
And Johnson was well aware that Hamlin won from deep in the field last year.
“If I was in their shoes, I’d say, ‘Heck, we qualified 38th last year. It doesn’t matter,’” Johnson said.
Hamlin spent part of Thursday afternoon getting needled by Harvick and Johnson during a news conference that seemed at times more like a celebrity roast than an interview session. Clearly, Hamlin’s two championship rivals are trying to get into his head through good-natured, but pointed, verbal jabs.
It continued on Friday morning, when Johnson said he slept “great” Thursday night despite the mounting pressure of the championship.
“I don’t know if Denny did, but I know I did,” Johnson said.
Despite the perception that Hamlin is the least loose of the three title contenders going into Sunday’s race, Hamlin insisted he isn’t uptight.
“I feel fine,” Hamlin said. “I feel the same as I do every week. No, I’m never uptight.”
But Hamlin did finally toss a barb back in Johnson’s direction.
“If he keeps bringing up my name, he’s pretty much worried about me,” Hamlin said. “That’s all I’ll say. You’re not gonna say you’re not worried and you’re relaxed and everything, but keep bringing up my name.”
Meanwhile, it was the fourth pole of the season for Kahne, who switched from Richard Petty Motorsports to Red Bull Racing last month. He hopes to build momentum for a full season at Red Bull before moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.
NASCAR considering changes
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — NASCAR is still considering changes to its title format even though this is the closest championship race in seven years.
“Right now every sports league, or almost every one, is looking at what they need to do to change their formats a little or a lot, depending on who they are, to make sure their playoffs or their championship runs are what they want them to be,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “We’re no different.”
France said this year that NASCAR would consider offseason changes to its Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, which debuted in 2004 and replaced the traditional season-long points system. Tweaked several times since it was launched, the system pits 12 drivers against each other over the final 10 races of the year.
Jimmie Johnson has won the last four championships and three times had his titles well in hand before the season finale. That lack of drama likely spurred NASCAR to consider more changes, and France said at the time he wanted more “Game 7″ type moments rivaling those from other professional sports leagues.
NASCAR has had exactly that this season, with three drivers entering Sunday’s finale with a chance to win the title.
Denny Hamlin leads Johnson by 15 points, while Kevin Harvick is 46 points out. It’s the tightest final race since the Chase debuted, and Kurt Busch took an 18-point lead over Johnson into Homestead.
France is thrilled with how this Chase has developed, but said he plans to move forward on potential changes.
“We’re going to have a championship that puts a lot on the line, that’s critical, and rewards the drivers who have the biggest performances throughout the season,” he said. “Whatever we might consider will accomplish that. But, hey, first thing’s first. We’re not going to look ahead to 2011 until this weekend is concluded because this could be a very, very memorable Sunday.”
Drivers have mixed feelings on what they’d like to see to the Chase.
“I don’t think they need to change the Chase,” said Clint Bowyer, ranked 11th in the Chase. “I think the competition is closer than it has ever been. That is what we were lacking. Hats off to everybody involved in this sport. This has been a great year.”
The championship contenders were asked this week about their preferences. Harvick and Hamlin support a variation of tracks in the final 10 races. The venues have shifted slightly since 2004, but as NASCAR discussed tweaks to the 2011 schedule, the only change was moving Chicago into the Chase and removing California, which has had attendance problems.
“I’d like to see a little bit more diversity in the racetracks,” Harvick said. “I don’t think the last 10 weeks should be the same racetracks over and over and over again. I think it should rotate around. You have it end at different places, have it start at different places. Maybe you go to some of the same racetracks, but I think a different 10 weeks, even a road course at the end of the year would put that full diversity on your champion.”
Johnson actually deferred on Chase changes and set his sights on two other NASCAR issues: The grueling 36-race schedule that stretches from February to November, and an abundance of 500-mile races that stretch more than three hours.
“I think a shorter schedule would be awesome. Shorter races, too,” Johnson said.
France said such races are on the radar, citing the shortening of the October race at California this year from 500 to 400 miles.