Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Sprint Cup [Print without images]

Friday, November 19, 2010
Day racing the wild card at Homestead

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson was his usual mellow self. Kevin Harvick lived up to his nickname: Happy. Denny Hamlin was stoic, all business.

Two days before their championship fate is decided, the roles of the three Sprint Cup contenders remained the same. And a little trash-talking continued.

When asked how he slept Thursday night, Johnson said: "I slept fine. I don't know if Denny did."

Hamlin had his rebuttal when he spoke to reporters later.

Homestead-Miami Speedway
With an earlier 1:15 p.m. ET start time Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, race-day sunsets like this are a thing of the past.

"I feel fine," he said, never cracking a smile. "The same as I do every week. I'm never uptight. But if [Johnson] keeps bringing up my name, he's pretty much worried about me."

Hamlin has a little worrying to do because he'll start way behind Johnson on Sunday.

Give Round 1 Friday to Johnson after qualifying. He'll start sixth. Harvick will start 28th and Hamlin 37th, but he won this race last year despite starting 38th.

"It was too tight," Hamlin said, who was using teammate Kyle Busch's qualifying setup. "But our car is going to be fine. Fridays never have been our strong suit."

In his regular Friday meeting with the media, Hamlin said, "Since this is my last press conference of the year …"

Is it? Isn't he forgetting something? Will we see him Sunday holding the trophy?

"I don't know," he said as he walked out. "We'll see."

But Hamlin did have a prediction: "If I have half the car we had at Phoenix, we should be OK."

That's assuming fuel mileage isn't an issue, which it was this past weekend at Phoenix. It's a problem Hamlin admits the No. 11 Toyota team hasn't solved.

Harvick has no fuel-consumption concerns, which helps him rest well at night.

"I slept fine, by the way," he said, smiling. "I don't usually have a problem with that."

All three drivers likely will have sleeping problems Sunday night. Two will stay awake wondering what went wrong. One will stay up enjoying an all-night party on South Beach with his championship team.

And the happy bunch will have a few more hours to enjoy that celebration than in past years.

Barring a driving rainstorm -- something that happens on occasion this time of year in South Florida -- the championship will be decided in the daylight hours Sunday.

So what? No doubt some of you are asking that question.

Most races finish in the daylight. What's the big deal?

The big three think it's pretty darn important.

In recent years, the Ford 400 has started in late afternoon and finished at night under the lights. Teams had to adjust their cars for changing track conditions as the pavement cooled when the sun set.

Not this time. The race will start about 1:15 p.m. ET and end about 4:30. The track will be hot and slick from start to finish.

"That's the biggest key," Harvick said. "When you look back at these [Homestead] races, you've had to set up for the night. Otherwise, you'll be way too tight."

This race entails a whole new strategy. When a track cools, the tires have more grip and speeds increase. This time, the track will get increasingly difficult to drive as the race progresses.

"I think with the race being in the sun, we're going to be searching all over for clean asphalt," Johnson said. "You're going to need a mindset to search and move around."

Johnson moved around enough to turn the third-fastest lap in practice Friday at 175.058 mph in the No. 48 Chevrolet. He almost brushed the wall near the end of the session.

'We were a little bit free there," Johnson told crew chief Chad Knaus. "That was cool."

The 1.5-mile oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway has progressive banking, meaning the banking increases the higher you go on the asphalt. It's longer around the top, but often faster because of the increased banking.

"And when the track is slicker, the car tends to move up [the track] a little bit," Jeff Burton said Friday. "So you will see more cars racing up by the wall."

However, it's more of a gamble racing up top in the heat of the day.

"The track will be slick," Johnson said. "It will ensure three- and four-wide racing with guys looking for clean air and grip on the track."

Hamlin won this race last year by racing near the bottom after darkness came. That plan might need to change for Sunday.

"There's a lot of room on this racetrack," Hamlin said. "You can get three-wide because you can race from the bottom to the top and change your car to where it works best.

"I've been successful on the top and the bottom. I always seem to run lower and get a lot cleaner air than others do. Obviously, the top is a little bit more risky. Your room for error is a lot less. But if you hit it right, there's a reward up there."

There's also danger of hitting the wall and ending your day. Can the title contenders take that risk?

Those guys are worrying themselves to death. You think about every little thing on every lap from the first practice until the checkered flag.

-- Kurt Busch on the Cup contenders

"Especially in our scenario, we can take that risk of running high," said Harvick, who entered the race in third, 46 points behind Hamlin and 15 behind Johnson. "That seems to be our kind of preferred groove this season, to run really high. We've gotten a lot better at it.

"And these cars are tough. You can bounce them off the wall. At Texas [two weeks ago], I hit the wall so hard I thought we were done. It knocked the bolts out of the thing and knocked the spoiler over. The car got a little bit tight."

Harvick still finished sixth. That race ended at night, but Harvick is glad this race won't end under the lights.

"I'm excited about the daytime start because we always seem to run a lot better during the day," he said. "The daytime start, in my opinion, is the biggest factor in everything."

Running in the sun didn't help Harvick much in practice Friday.

"As soon as we turn down [out of the turns], we're chattering the tires when pick throttle up," Harvick told crew chief Gil Martin.

But team owner Richard Childress told Harvick that he didn't see another car in practice that was better than his running high on the track.

Johnson believes up high is the place to be Sunday unless everyone plays follow the leader.

"It seems like that last 6 inches near the wall, there's a lot of grip at a lot of tracks we go to," Johnson said. "But you run up there for a while, the whole field is there, then pretty soon that area is slick. You have to move on somewhere else."

The driver who moves to the right place at the right time to get the most out of his car on a hot track probably is the one who will hold the championship cup at the end.

Kurt Busch, the man who won the other close Chase battle, in 2004, said fans shouldn't believe what the contenders are saying about being calm and collected.

"Those guys are worrying themselves to death," Busch said. "You think about every little thing on every lap from the first practice until the checkered flag."

Carl Edwards, who earned his first victory of the season last week, hopes to go 2-for-2 at the end. But he also can't wait to see how the championship unfolds

"I just have a feeling about it," Edwards said. "This thing is going to come down to the last lap."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.