The attention may be on the four drivers who will race for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship Sunday, but Friday belonged to non-Chase driver Denny Hamlin. Hamlin put down a lap 30.568, 176.655 mph at Homestead-Miami Speedway late in the final five minute round of qualifying Friday to win his third pole of the season and the final one of the 2015 season. The pole was Hamlin’s 23rd of his career and his first at Homestead where he has two wins.
“Fast car,” Hamlin said. “Our car has been really fast all day so I’ve been very encouraged with what we’ve seen with our FedEx Ground Toyota. I don’t know. Everything is going good. I wouldn’t mind a little bit of rain tomorrow to not let these guys catch up in race trim. I’m certainly very optimistic we’re going to have a good day on Sunday.”
The drama however belonged to the four drivers who will contend for the championship, specifically Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick. Harvick led the first round with the fastest lap of the three rounds, 177.848, but in the second round, Gordon knocked Harvick out with just over two minutes to go. Harvick went out for a second lap but came up short and had to settle for a 13th place starting spot for Sunday.
“We’ve not qualified as well this year as we had last year, especially on some of these types of racetracks,” Harvick said. “We got one out of the three rounds, but we only got two shots at it — well, we got three shots at it today, so it’s really not anywhere too far outside of the box from where we’ve qualified in a lot of these races this year on these types of racetracks.”
Gordon had his own issues in the rounds of qualifying. In the first round Gordon, who will be not only contending for the title but will be starting his final race as a full time competitor on Sunday, was knocked out of the top 24. He was forced to take a second run, after many others took only one run, with just over two minutes to go in the second round. His lap was good enough to secure a spot in the final round and snag a fifth place starting position for Sunday.
“You know, I wasn’t sure,” Gordon said of his second round run. “I was looking at everything and trying to figure out where I lost time. I felt like the balance of the car was good. I felt like the grip was good. I just obviously felt like I didn’t push it hard enough and wasn’t aggressive enough with it. So, I said well, I’m not going to leave anything on the table this time. “
Joey Logano, who was eliminated from the Chase last Sunday will start second. Kyle Busch will lead the Chase drivers Sunday; he will roll off third with Ryan Newman in fourth in front of Gordon. Martin Truex Jr., the fourth Chase driver, will start 11th Sunday.
“I thought 11th was a decent effort,” said Truex. “Obviously wanted to be better and did a lot throughout qualifying to make adjustments and tried to move my line around and just never really could quite hit on it. So tried something a little different in the third round; probably cost us a few spots there. But all in all, it’s not about where you start here. This race is really hard on tires, really wears tires out, and long runs are going to be key, so looking forward to getting out there tomorrow and working on our car and seeing what we have for Sunday.”
Ryan Blaney, who announced earlier Friday that he will compete full time for the legendary Wood Brothers Racing in 2016, will roll off sixth, Carl Edwards, who led Friday’s rain shortened practice session will start seventh followed by Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Austin Dillon. Jeb Burton and Reed Sorenson failed to make the field. The full starting lineup can be found here. The NASCAR Sprint Cup series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the final race of the 2016 season, will get the green flag just after 3:00 p.m. ET Sunday with live coverage on NBC.