NASCAR Frontrunners Meet Media

Homestead, Fla. – With three NASCAR titles on the line this weekend, the frontrunners came to the Homestead-Miami Speedway a day early to discuss their championship hopes for the 2013 season. Going into the Ford Championship Weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series titles will be resolved by the end of the weekend.

For the three series, the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and the Camping World Truck Series titles are seemingly settled but for the Nationwide Series, only eight points separate Austin Dillon and his nemesis Sam Hornish Jr.

Unless a major disaster happens to Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team, he has a lock on his sixth Sprint Cup championship as he holds a 28 point lead. 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 dreadful run at Phoenix a week ago, Matt Kenseth fell 28 points behind the leader and with a victory in Phoenix, Kevin Harvick moved in close but still resides 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 trio seemed very relaxed and wore 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 races on the 1.5-milw track 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 has raced four times in the last eight weeks, including his dominating 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 eventual champion’s worst finis is 15th (three times) with Johnson scoring a 15th five years ago. Two years ago, he finished 36th and a year ago, he ended up 32nd, so his work is cut out for him. These dismal performances 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 (2004) 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.”

Johnson knows he’s closing in on and could surpass Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, who lead the pack with seven championships, but says he doesn’t get overly involved with statistics.

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

Kenseth is resigned to being the distant challenger and knows he doesn’t have a chance unless Johnson’s team self-destructs. “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.”

Harvick was equally pessimistic with his champion outlook but knows anything can 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,” he said. “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.”

In the Nationwide Series, youthful Dillon holds the advantage over 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 from a recent test at HMS. “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 circles 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 the Nationwide task may well be more of a challenge.

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 tussle between the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford and the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. The Penske Ford leads the pack by four points.

On the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series front, Matt Crafton has a 46-point lead over Ty Dillon, and Crafton assumes 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 and the others will be looking forward to doing better in the upcoming seasons

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