Denny Hamlin is searching for his first championship and will start on pole position at Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Rain on Friday cancelled practice both practice sessions and thus Saturday’s qualifying was cancelled too. Owner points determine the start order of Sunday’s race, giving Hamlin pole position. Fellow championship contenders Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Busch round out the top four with last year’s champion Joey Logano starting fifth.
Despite Saturday’s qualifying session being cancelled, the time slot became a 50-minute practice session instead.
When the drivers were asked if they were OK with the decision Hamlin quipped, “I was. It’s that good karma for giving up that pit box last year. It all comes back around.”
“I think he’s back even,” said Busch, the 2015 champion.
Hamlin won pole at last year’s race in Homestead, giving him the first choice for the coveted No. 1 pitbox spot but relinquished the spot to teammate Busch, who was among the four finalists while Hamlin was not.
Busch posted the fastest speed in the session at 168.966. Truex Jr. was second at 168.460, Hamlin third at 168.277, and Harvick was ninth at 166.806. Busch also had the fastest five-lap average while Hamlin had the fastest 10-lap average and Truex was the fastest in 15 laps.
“I think practice over qualifying was for sure a good idea just for the field and the unknown with everything coming into this weekend to have a shot to work on your race car instead of going out there blind and trying to run as fast as you can for a qualifying lap,” Busch said.
Harvick trailed behind the other three in all categories, but did not indicate disappointment.
“It went good,” Harvick said. “We missed our travels a little bit the first run and got our car a lot better.”
Harvick, who won the championship in 2014, is the lone Stewart-Haas Racing driver among the four with the other three with Joe Gibbs Racing, marking the first time an owner has had three of the four final drivers.
Hamlin has won six times this season, including twice in the playoffs, giving him momentum towards winning his first championship.
Only Truex Jr., who won the title in 2017, has won more races (seven) and playoff races (three) than Hamlin.
“I feel pretty good,” Truex Jr. said. “I definitely feel we can get better. Just like every other weekend-how can you get better? Can you do the right things? Can you make the right changes tonight for tomorrow? And then you go race and see how it plays out. I’m feeling pretty good about things and hopefully we can get a little bit better.”
Busch won four of the first 14 races of the season, but has not won since June 3 at Pocono Raceway—a string of 21 races.
“I guess the way I look at it is we came in here as the underdog in ’15 and wasn’t necessarily favored—many thought we shouldn’t have even been eligible and so we went out there and stomped their ass and won the deal,” Busch said. “So what can you do for me now is the way it goes.”
All four drivers believe the racing strategy will be to run on the top line as opposed to the bottom.
“Typically the bottom doesn’t go as well with the traction so we’ll see how that goes with the higher downforce and less power,” Harvick said.
Brad Keselowski recorded the fastest speed (167.894) among the non-championship four drivers.
“Everyone is coming into today for the most part just doing their normal thing and trying to have fun and enjoy everything that surrounds us,” Hamlin said. “You never know.”