NASCAR’s championship contenders address weekend ahead

NASCAR’s championship contenders address weekend ahead
By: Joe Jennings
Nov 15, 2013, 5:36 AM

Final battles ready to commence for the top-tier of NASCAR.

Homestead, Fla. – The 2013 NASCAR season ends on Sunday with the running of three races as part of the Ford Championship Weekend at the Miami-Homestead Speedway. While NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series is the featured attraction, the Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series share the billing with the premier series.

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship is all but settled with Jimmie Johnson holding a commanding 28 point lead and expecting to cop his sixth championship. And he will be crowned champion with a finish of 23rd or better, or 24th or better and at least one lap led or 25th or better and the most laps led in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400.

After a disastrous run at Phoenix a week ago, Matt Kenseth trails Johnson by 28 and Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick is 34 off the pace. These two drivers are the only ones with a mathematical shot for the coveted crown.

Johnson, Kenseth and Harvick met with the media at HMS on Thursday as part of the NASCAR Contenders Press conference.

The three drivers seemed very relaxed and were all smiles as they responded to a myriad of questions.

“I’m definitely in the position I want to be in,” Johnson said. “We control our own destiny, but it does come with a price. There’s a lot of pressure on myself and the team to get things done.” The five-time champion said qualifying is very important at HMS, as these races seem to have extended green-flag runs. “The race starts with qualifying,” he noted.

For Johnson, he will be driving the same Lowe’s Chevrolet that he will have raced four times in the last eight weeks, including his compelling victory at Texas. “The car started out as a back-up and we had to use it at Michigan in August,” he said. “Right way there was just something that felt really good about it, but we don’t know why. We’ve looked at all the numbers from aero and all the things that go with it, and there’s nothing that stands out. It just feels better and is a more comfortable car for me to drive.”

At HMS, the worst finish by the eventual champion is 15th (three times) with Johnson scoring a 15th five years ago. A year ago, he finished 36th and in 2012, he ended up 32nd, so his work is cut out for him. These dismal finishes are offset by four top five’s and seven top 10’s to go along with three poles. In 12 HMS races, his average finish is 15.3.

Johnson squandered the point lead a year ago but he said losing the 2004 title to Kurt Busch affected him more. “That one hurt for a lot of reasons (including the team’s airplane crash). In 2004, there were so many emotions riding on things. But stuff happens. It is a team sport, which is an element that gets overlooked. A year ago, I felt that I did some of the best driving I’ve done, and I felt like I was a better teammate than I’d been in years past.”

Johnson knows he’s closing in on and could surpass Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty with their seven championships, but says he doesn’t get overly involved with statistics as he wasn’t accustomed to winning as a young driver.

For guidance, Johnson relies on commentary given by a friend, who said, “Limits begin where the vision ends.”

Kenseth is resigned to be a distant challenger and recognizes his chances are slim unless Johnson’s team has a devastating ending. “Obviously, we’re not going to make up the deficit on performance,” the two-time champion said. “He’s going to have to have a mechanical problem or crash to make something happen. We’ll have to be up in the top five to hold on to second or to overtake Jimmie if he has a problem.”

Harvick was equally pessimistic with his champion outlook but knows anything can and does happen in racing. “We’ve had so many strange things happen throughout my career at the last minute, you at least have to play everything out. The type of team we have, we race up until the last lap, as you 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.”

Championship contenders press conference: NASCAR Nationwide Series contenders Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr.
Championship contenders press conference: NASCAR Nationwide Series contenders Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr.

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

The Nationwide Series crown is the only one truly up for grabs with youthful Austin Dillon holding an eight-point advantage over the more veteran driver Sam Hornish Jr. Dillon stands to win the championship with a third-place finish or better, or fourth or better with one lap led or fifth or better with the most laps led.

If Hornish is feeling the pressure, it didn’t show and his team hopes to have gained an advantage by saving one of their two authorized tests for HMS, doing so two weeks ago. “One of the things that gives me confidence going into this weekend is our performance on the 1.5-mile tracks and the fact we tested here,” he said. “Saving that test day for here hopefully will be a real good thing for us.”

The former IndyCar champion said the stock-car championship atmosphere is much different from what he experienced in open-wheel action seven years ago. “When you are that young, you feel like there’s a lot more to win out there, especially when you won pretty much 50% of the races you are in,” he said, indicating this effort may well be more of a challenge. He said the two biggest lessons he has learned is that you cannot carry the car on your back and you have to be surrounded by the right people.

Without a win in 2013, Dillon expressed a positive outlook. “It would mean a lot to win the championship. God blessed us with a good season. We were consistent, and that paid off for us at the end of the year. We were strong on all the 1.5-mile tracks and it would be good to finish off the year with a win and the championship.”

This series also features a tight owners’ championship battle between the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford and the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. The Penske Ford leads the pack by four points.

Championship contenders press conference: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series contender Matt Crafton
Championship contenders press conference: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series contender Matt Crafton

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

On the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series front, Matt Crafton has a 46-point lead over Ty Dillon, and Crafton takes the crown when he starts the race in the Menards Toyota. “The last six days have gone by quickly,” he said, addressing the final race and his commanding lead. “The last two months have drug on for a long, long time. It’s tough and a lot of sleepless nights. At night, you wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning asking ‘How can I lose this thing?’ You don’t want to be the one guy with the biggest leads in Truck Series history and lose it.”

Crafton said he has wanted to win a championship since he was in the first grade. “It’s what I have worked for since being a kid. In my first autobiography assignment in the first grade, I wrote that I wanted to be a race car driver.”

At the end of the weekend, three drivers will wear championship crowns when they depart and the others will be looking forward to doing better in the upcoming seasons.

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