Ryan Blaney Clint Bowyer
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Playoff drivers aiming for leg up in Championship 4 finale after Miami test

ALL-ACCESS PHOTOS: Behind the scenes at Miami test

Under sunny skies and comfortable temperatures, Chevrolet drivers Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson topped Thursday’s round of testing at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of the Nov. 18 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season finale.

Eight Monster Energy Series drivers participated in the two-day test with NASCAR, including five who are still racing for a shot to be among the Championship 4 challenging for that Monster Energy NASCAR Cup at the South Florida venue next month.

“Just trying to learn what we can before we come back here in a few weeks,’’ said championship leader Martin Truex Jr., whose No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota was fourth fastest Thursday. “It’s a very unique race track, very different. You know a lot of the mile-and-a-halves we go to are very different from this. I feel like this (race) is hopefully going to be a big weekend for our team. Hopefully we’re in that final four when we come back here and I have a shot at our first championship.

“It’s the only track like it — slick, old pavement, a lot of grooves. It’s a lot of fun to race here, definitely a unique challenge for us.’’

Truex, who has set the pace for Monster Energy Series drivers all season, hasn’t had a top-10 finish at Homestead in three years. His best showing is a runner-up in 2006 and a third place finish in 2011. He finished 12th two years ago as part of the Championship 4 — a race and title won by Toyota stablemate Kyle Busch.

Johnson won the race and his record-tying seventh crown here last November. He, like Truex, is also among the group of eight drivers still fighting for a shot at the 2017 title. He said he’s fond of the track, and, also like Truex, considers it a different challenge than most of the 1.5-milers the series visits.

“It’s just a fun race track, the surface is worn and really promotes good tire fall-off and lots of lanes of racing,’’ said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. “This one is more of a true oval. Everything else has a kind of D-shaped straightaway.’’

He said he’s hopeful to be able to shift his thinking to Miami sooner than later. But he reiterated his Hendrick Motorsports team will be focused on this week’s Martinsville Speedway as soon as the Homestead test concludes Thursday afternoon. A historic eighth Cup championship will be on the line if Johnson can match his win at Martinsville from last fall and assure his place among the final four in South Florida.

“Last year we were able to win Martinsville and it certainly shifted our focus and certainly helped,’’ Johnson acknowledged. “In the end it all worked out, so it’s a luxury if you can lock in early and having this test session is a big step in this direction. These sessions are so valuable. It’s big to be here and test.’’

Another driver in the Round of 8, young star Ryan Blaney, was third fastest Thursday in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. The 23-year old is making his first NASCAR playoff appearance. He has finishes of 17th (2015) and 26th(2016) in two previous Homestead Cup starts, but three top-five finishes in the XFINITY Series.

“I personally like coming here, it’s a shame we only come once a year but I can’t think of a better track to end the season on,’’ Blaney said. “It’s a fun place and really challenging and you can figure more out when you come test here.”

Also participating this week were Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Trevor Bayne and Brad Keselowski. Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota was fastest Wednesday followed by Keselowski, Bowyer and Truex.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s speed of 174.036 mph on Wednesday was the fastest lap of the two-day test.