Championship contenders test at Homestead
October 29, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Even after climbing out of their race cars during a break in testing Tuesday on a breezy, sunny, warm South Florida Chamber of Commerce day, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series championship contenders insisted they were still focused on this week’s Sprint Cup Series stop in Texas and next week’s in Phoenix.
But speaking to reporters during lunch break with the shiny, distinctive Sprint Cup Series championship trophy on full display a couple feet away, drivers conceded that naturally, they can't help but anticipate the Nov. 17 Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale here at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"Being here is the light (at the end of the tunnel) we chase all year long and it’s here," joked Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer. "It means the end is near."
For defending Homestead winner Jeff Gordon, the test is an opportunity to keep his title hopes up and get some extra laps at the track that more often than not decides who gets to hoist that trophy.
"It’s a special place here and a nice little warm-up for us here (this week)," said Gordon, whose win Sunday at Martinsville moved him to within 27 points of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and championship co-leader Matt Kenseth heading into Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
This week’s test at HMS is a full-sensory experience for five-time Cup champ Johnson, triggering memories both of his historic triumphs and what-could-have-been moments.
He said just being on property for the test creates excitement about the possibilities that exist when he returns to compete only three weeks from now.
"There’s always a certain anxiety, a little pit in your stomach, whatever it is whenever you step off the plane and onto the tarmac at Tamiami (Airport) and drive South to here," Johnson said.
"I’m aware of the track and the significance of what happens here. I’m so hungry after what happened here last year. It’s nice to be here and test and feel the vibe and remind yourself of what happens because (when we come back) it’s a stressful weekend for us."
Fifteen drivers from six Sprint Cup teams – including the championship contending Hendrick and Joe Gibbs organizations -- are participating in the three-day test on the unique 1.5-mile oval.
Bowyer said his No. 15 5-hour Energy Toyota was so fast when the team unloaded that after only two laps, he asked his crew if they could just pack it back up, job well done. He fully expects yet another track record speed during qualifying when the series’ new Gen-6 cars return to close out the season.
"It’s a cool race track, it’s fun and I think a neat one to decide the championship because of all the things it brings to the table with the multi-groove race surface," said Bowyer, the 2013 championship runner-up who is currently sixth in the standings.
"You just don’t see that kind of racing on these big race tracks very often."
This season’s seven-time winner Kenseth agreed. He won here in 2007 driving a Ford and with two top-10s in the last three races, he considers it one of his better tracks.
"It’s been a busy couple weeks with a lot going on and always a balance to be at a track testing and then be ready to go to Texas and then Phoenix with not a lot of turnaround time," Kenseth said.
"But I’m looking forward to all three races. They’ve all three been good tracks to us.
"I really like the track. I like how you can really change your line, change the balance of your car, it’s really a race-y track."
Even realizing that the title run could very well come down to the final laps at Homestead, Kenseth refused to get too far ahead of himself.
"You just don’t know," he said smiling and invoking sport’s greatest cliché, "I take it one week at a time. Really."