HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Every driver in today’s Ford EcoBoost 400 is aware of the championship scenario involving Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick.
They know Johnson’s 28-point lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup makes him a prohibitive favorite. They know if he finishes in the top 23, he will win his sixth Sprint Cup Series title.
But that doesn’t mean everyone else doesn’t have their own storylines at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Kenseth will be just as focused as not losing second place to Harvick. At the same time, Harvick will be focused on not losing third place in the standings to Kyle Busch.
The season-finale might be more about deciding the championship, but most have different agendas. Like:
• Kurt Busch, who will start second, has a 26-point lead over Ryan Newman for 10th-place in the Chase. Busch wants to give single-car Furniture Row Racing an improbable top-10 finish before he leaves for Stewart-Haas Racing next year.
“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 said.
• Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (starting 21st) and Denny Hamlin (starting fifth) all will have one final chance to win their first race of the year.
• Danica Patrick (starting 24th) will try to match, or beat, her career-best eighth-place finish that came at the season-opening Daytona 500 to send her into the off-season with some momentum.
• Veterans Mark Martin (starting 22nd), Jeff Burton (starting 14th) and Ken Schrader (starting 41st) all are looking to close out their seasons, and perhaps their careers, on a positive note.
• Defending champion Brad Keselowski (starting fourth) will try to salvage his season by holding onto a nine-point lead over Jamie McMurray (starting 28th) for 14th place.
• And Juan Pablo Montoya (starting 27th) has one final chance to win on an oval before returning to the IndyCar Series next year.
While there are several personal issues to be decided today, the one that will leave the most-lasting memory is the championship. And if that turns out to be Johnson, as expected, it will push him deeper into the conversation as the sport’s all-time greatest driver.
“He’s loaded with talent,” said Richard Petty, NASCAR’s all-time leader in wins (200) and championships (seven). “I think they’ve got all the stars lined up, which it shows most of the year and it’s his year.”
Kenseth won the pole Friday and he had the fastest car in Saturday’s first practice session.
Harvick, who starts sixth today, was fifth-fastest.
Johnson qualified seventh, and he was 15th-fastest in practice. He’d like to find a little more speed before the main event (3 p.m. ET, ESPN), but he’s ready for any challenge that may arise during the race.
“In my five times trying to win a championship or did win a championship there was some adversity that was thrown at me through points of the race,” Johnson said. “So [Sunday’s] goal is yes, to have a fast car, but to have a car that I’m comfortable with, a car that I can run anywhere on the racetrack and, if we do have a caution situation put us down a lap, to have something that I can be comfortable in traffic with and go race.”
By winning the pole and being fast in practice, Kenseth did everything possible to put pressure on Johnson. But he knows his chances to make up a 28-point deficit are, at best, remote.
That’s why he’s just as aware of not losing second-place to Harvick, who starts the race only six points behind in third place.
“Obviously we need to go out and do the things that we need to do to be in position in case they do have some sort of problem,” Kenseth said. “Kevin (Harvick) is pretty close to us in points, I believe, so we want to make sure we stay ahead of him to finish second and be ahead of him in case the 48 (Johnson) has a problem so he doesn’t sneak in and win it.
“Our approach is, the only way, I don’t have any plan. Yeah, we want to win it. You don’t get a lot of opportunities to win these things, so when you get one you want to take advantage of that and you want to win it.”