The Ford 400 is the final event on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup Series schedule. The Cup Series visits the 1.51-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway just once a year, hosting a 400-miler annually since 1999. The first Nextel Cup winner at the track was Tony Stewart, who won back-to-back events in 1999 and 2000. The track is a true oval track with graduated banking from 18-20 degrees in the corners. The straightaways are flatter, with only four degrees of banking. Drivers will race 267 laps for the checkered flag; the field will include 2005 polesitter Carl Edwards as well as defending race winner Greg Biffle.
55 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the Top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. 2006 owner points determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes for the remainder of the season. Qualifying runs consist of two laps, with the fastest lap setting a team’s time. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record on this track configuration at Homestead is 181.111 mph, set by Jamie McMurray in 2003.
To the Point
Jimmie Johnson‘s fifth top-two finish in a row helped the driver widen the gap on top of the points to 63, but Matt Kenseth‘s late rally at Phoenix keeps him within shouting distance of Johnson heading into Homestead. Johnson needs to finish 12th or better in the finale to assure himself of the title that has barely eluded him over the last four years. Should Johnson clinch on Sunday, it would mark his first championship in five years in the series. Three other drivers still have a chance at the head table should both Johnson and Kenseth run into trouble – Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are tied, 90 points back of the lead, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. finds himself 115 points off the pace, his title dreams a longshot at best.
While the rest of the top 10 cannot take the title, they can swap spots on Sunday. Sixth-place Jeff Gordon in is a unique position – he can go to the banquet as a championship car owner if Johnson takes home the Nextel Cup, as he’s the owner of record (actually co-owner) on the No. 48. Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch round out the top 10.
What To Expect
Homestead is a big, wide, fast track, and the graduated banking added a few years ago has improved the racing immensely. There are multiple grooves and room to make minor mistakes. The track can produce numerous caution periods – 14 in 2004 – but debris cautions have been the biggest culprit. Tires were also a concern last fall – a blown tire early relegated Johnson to a 40th-place finish and stripped him of a title shot. This year’s tire compounds seem more durable, and that problem should be reduced.
Qualifying is critical at this track – no winner has ever started lower than 15th. In addition, fuel mileage has been a crucial factor on may intermediate tracks this year, which means thingfs could well come down to the gas tank for the win – and the Cup – this weekend. Pit strategy will be crucial for both championship and race contenders, as will staying out of trouble on pit road. One more factor that could play a role in the championship is rookies – there are often several in the field at Homestead to go along with the usual crowd, with drivers prepping for 2007. This year may not be much different, with up to five or six more rookies attempting to make the field; the youngsters better behave! David Ragan took a lot of heat at Martinsville for his inexperience, and the other drivers will be far less forgiving this time. Juan Pablo Montoya is also scheduled to make his Cup debut, and his aggressive style may find him less than popular with the Chasers.
Who to Watch
All eyes will be on the championship contenders this week, and Harvick shines the brightest at this track. He doesn’t have a victory, but his average finish of just under ninth makes him a threat to put heat on the points leaders – and he has momentum from his win at Phoenix to back that up. Johnson needs a 12th-place finish or better to assure the championship no matter what Kenseth and Harvick do, and his average Homestead finish of 15th isn’t far off. Of course, that average includes last year’s blown tire and his third-ever Cup race, where he finished deep in the field. Take those out of the equation, and the numbers are much better. Earnhardt Jr. has been fast and aggressive in the Chase, and he’s solid here, as is Kenseth. Martin and Gordon are among the best at this track, too.
Outside the chase are several drivers out for bragging rights. Stewart has two Homestead wins to his credit, and is bringing the car that won Atlanta, Texas, and Kansas this fall. Biffle has won the last two in a row, and Edwards, reunited with crew chief Bob Osborne last week and was a threat for the win, showing immediately why the pair was a title threat last year. Casey Mears should have won in 2005 until a questionable debris caution took it away. Mears would love nothing more than to win in his final race with Chip Ganassi Racing before he heads to Hendrick Motorsports for the 2007 season. Ganassi’s newest driver, open-wheel star Montoya, makes his Cup debut – and his aggressive style could be a factor in the race should he rub fenders with frontrunners.
Did You Know?
- That 12 drivers have started all seven races at Homestead? Only three of this year’s Chasers have the maximum Homestead track time – Burton, Gordon and Martin.
- That Biffle and McMurray both will make their 150th career Cup starts at Homestead this weekend?
- Last year’s season finale featured 21 lead changes? So did the race at this track in 2003.
You Don’t Say…
“I am really excited that my first Cup race will be at my hometown track in Homestead as I will have a lot of friends and family around. I think this is a good move for both me and our team as I continue experiencing the new challenges of racing a stock car. This is just another step in my preparation for the 2007 NASCAR season.” – Juan Pablo Montoya on his Cup debut at Homestead
“I never conceded and I just said, let’s go all out, we have nothing to lose, let’s just try to finish up by winning races… just like the [No.] 20 has been doing, it’s about winning races, and that’s been our philosophy the last couple of months.” – points leader Jimmie Johnson on overcoming a 167-point deficit in four races to take the championship lead
“It’s kind of hard to believe that this is the last weekend in the No. 6 car. We’ve fought hard in this thing for 19 years now, and we aren’t going to change anything for this last race. We’ll go out fighting just as hard for the win as we did in 1988 when we started this thing. I just want to make sure that I thank all of the guys that gave so much to the No. 6 car during that time. We had a great run, and I’ll always be thankful for the opportunity.” – Mark Martin, who on Sunday will make his final start for Roush Racing after 19 seasons