Commentary

Palm trees, blue skies and breezy conditions ... we must be in South Florida

Homestead blog Friday

Updated: November 14, 2008, 5:13 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

All times Eastern

5:06 p.m.

Carl Edwards will start Sunday's Ford 400 on Row 2. Jimmie Johnson will start on Row 15.

Edwards earned a small advantage in qualifying Friday. He posted a lap at 171.418 mph, good enough for fourth on the starting grid.

Johnson was 30th with a lap at 169.253 mph in the No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson needs to finish 36th or better to clinch his third consecutive Cup title.

David Reutimann was the surprise of the day, winning the first pole of his career. Reutimann turned a lap at 171.638 mph in the No. 44 Toyota to earn the No. 1 spot on the grid.

Scott Speed will join Reutimann on the front row, thanks to a car swap at Red Bull Racing. Speed earned a career-best start by trading cars with teammate Brian Vickers, who is driving the No. 84 Toyota this weekend that Speed usually drives.

The team is trying to get the No. 84 in the top 35 in owners' points, which would guarantee it a spot in the field for the first five races next season. The car is 17 points outside the top 35 entering Sunday's race.

Vickers is competing in his fifth Cup season. Speed is making is fifth Cup start. The No. 83 Toyota, which Vickers has driven all season until this weekend, ranks 20th in the owners' standings.

Vickers qualified 20th in the No. 84 Camry.

4:39 p.m.

Team owner Rick Hendrick often has talked about the heart-to-heart meeting he had with Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus after the 2005 season.

The driver and crew chief were frustrated with each other after coming close but failing to win the championship for the third consecutive season.

The meeting with Hendrick was called to determine whether Johnson and Knaus would stay together or move to separate teams within the Hendrick Motorsports organization.

"I would have bet money we couldn't fix it," Hendrick said Friday. "But they both were professional enough that they worked it out. In so many cases like that one, communication is the key.

"What we talked about that day was that 80 to 90 percent of what they did was perfect. It was that other piece that caused the difficulties and the irritation with each other. They are both very intense, but they understand each other now."

Johnson and Knaus are on the brink of NASCAR history and a third consecutive Cup championship. Hendrick was asked how he thinks things would have turned out if Johnson and Knaus had gone their separate ways.

"Both of those guys would have been successful in their own right," Hendrick said. "But I think they are stronger together."

3:12 p.m.

Greg Biffle thinks NASCAR's financial difficulties are no different than any other business in America.

"This is a caution flag for everybody to cut back a little bit,'' Biffle said. "We are facing some serious economic times and it's all across the board.

"I've paid a lot of attention to this because I've seen my retirement account go down like everybody else. What I see is it's not our sport; it's every single thing. All the banks, all the bad mortgages and real estate went up and up and up everywhere.

"It was spend, spend, spend and everything wide open until the dam couldn't hold any more water. Our sport simply followed the trend I saw everywhere. People were just overspending, or spending everything they could."

Many people believe NASCAR's spending has gotten out of hand in recent years, with the cost of operating a competitive Cup team going up four-fold in less than 10 years. But Biffle thinks NASCAR gets a bad rap.

"Here [in NASCAR] you try to get better every week, and some of that was bumping the staff up," Biffle said. "You add engineering, add testing, this and that. But everyone in normal businesses did the same kind of thing.

"I don't think we did anything abnormal compared to what anyone else did. In fact, maybe we were more reserved in some cases. We didn't take $15 million from sponsors and spend $25 million hoping to get it back. None of us did that."

2:49 p.m.

Greg Biffle was asked Friday what would keep him from bumping Johnson during Sunday's race to take him out and allow Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards to win the title.

"We're not that kind of organization," Biffle said. "We don't condone any of that. What it comes down to is sportsmanship. It comes down to pride, and it comes down to class.

"Nothing stops me from wrecking the 48 on Lap 1, but that's not the way we do business and it's not what my sponsors want me to do. We treat people how we want to be treated."

Biffle can't catch Johnson for the Cup title, but Biffle still has a shot at catching Edwards for second place in the season standings.

Biffle is 62 points behind Edwards. Biffle and Edwards finished tied for second in the 2005 season, 35 points behind Tony Stewart. But Biffle earned the bonus money for second because he won six races and Edwards won four.

***

Denny Hamlin is in favor of the no-testing policy, but he believes changes are needed to the new car to help improved the racing next season.

"I think you need to increase the downforce in these cars if you're going to be able to pass," Hamlin said. "You're going to have to have more mechanical and aero grip in these cars to get around the guy in front of you. That's when you're going to see more passing.

"When you open up the door a little bit right there, that will open the speeds up a little bit. Right now, everyone will run the same speeds. You're not going to have passing when everyone is running the same speed. I know NASCAR wants to have it be a sport where it's very close between everyone. But, unfortunately, that doesn't lend itself to good racing when everyone is close in speed."

1:14 p.m.

Juan Pablo Montoya turned the fastest lap in the Friday practice session for Sunday's Ford 400. Montoya led the session with a lap at 171.282 mph in the No. 42 Dodge.

Dodges held the top three spots in practice. Ryan Newman was second and Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch was third.

Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards were right next to each other on the speed chart. Johnson was sixth at 170.336 mph and Edwards was seventh at 170.256 mph.

Forty-Six drivers are vying for the 43 starting grid spots when qualifying begins at 3:10 ET. Actually, 10 drivers are competing for seven spots because the top 35 in team-owner points are locked in. Bill Elliott also had a guaranteed spot as a past Cup champion.

***

Edwards is in favor of the no-testing policy NASCAR will implement next season.

"I think it's a great thing," he said. "It gives a little bit of relief to the teams, as far as expenses go. And it will make it a little easier on all the guys.

"As long as everyone operates under the same rules, you're going to have nearly the same competition, whether you test every day of the year or not test at all. I don't think the fans will see any difference."

The problem is whether everyone operates under the same rules. Teams like Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports will spend the money to test at non-Nascar tracks across the country. Smaller teams will not.

12:49 p.m.

Jeff Gordon finished second in the Sprint Cup championship standings to Jimmie Johnson last year, so he knows how Carl Edwards will feel if Edwards falls short of catching Johnson on Sunday.

"When you're sitting here on Sunday in the heat of the moment and you finish second [in the season standings], you don't care if it's second or 12th," Gordon said. "But when you go and pick up that check in New York [two weeks later], there's a big difference between second and 12th."

***

If he falls short of the championship, Edwards said he has learned a few things that should make the No. 99 team better next season.

"I learned where to put the effort, where to be cautious, and to not underestimate your opponents," Edwards said Friday. "I kind of already knew those things, but this kind of galvanized it. This makes me realize we have to really fine-tune the way we compete."

11:48 a.m.

If Jimmie Johnson is feeling any pressure, it doesn't show. In fact, he was more jovial and loose than normal when he spoke to reporters in the media center Friday morning.

But he does have a superstition or two he's following this week as the No. 48 team prepares for a historic third consecutive Cup title.

"Instead of microwaving something 60 seconds, I set it for 48 seconds," Johnson said.

You can bet he won't be setting the microwave for 99 seconds, the number on Carl Edwards' Ford. Then again, maybe he could say, "I nuked the 99."

Johnson had another little superstition this morning:

"Instead of setting my alarm this morning for 7 a.m., I set it for 7:03 a.m."

As in the 3-for-3 championships, making it part of his routine.

While Johnson was talking, he noticed a lawnmower race was showing on the TVs in the media center.

"Look at those things," Johnson said. "I wonder if they allow testing. I bet those guys are serious. I can hear them after a race saying, 'Yeah, my mower's runnin' good. The guys in the engine shop did a great job.' "

10:40 a.m.

When he entered the media center Friday morning, Jeff Burton didn't know the details of the new no-testing rule that will take effect next season.

"I've never been part of a sport where testing was banned, so I don't know the consequences of that," Burton said. "But I also know severe times call for severe measures. I think our sport has to have severe action right now."

Burton said everyone in the sport will have to adjust and do things differently.

"It's very difficult for car owners and everybody involved right now," Burton said. "The last few years have been all-time highs for fully funded and fully staffed race teams. I would say more people were employed on race teams than any point in our history. Toyota coming in created a lot of jobs. ...

"Now things are changing, but it will come back. No question in my mind. But this [next] year will be a real tough year."

10:25 a.m.

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Days like Friday in South Florida show why NASCAR likes to end the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Blue skies and breezy conditions with temperatures in the upper 70s is all you can ask for on the weather front.

Homestead is a pretty long trek from downtown Miami or South Beach (about 35 miles) but not a bad drive. The route via back roads to the track includes a view of dozens of palm tree farms. Literally thousands of them, all different types, are going in rows along the road.

It's not something you see on the way to any other NASCAR track.

***

Seven drivers who won a race last year enter the final race of the season winless this year. The Ford 400 is their last chance to win in 2008. The winless seven are Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Casey Mears, Martin Truex Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Gordon is trying to extend his winning streak to 15 seasons. His rookie year of 1993 was the only time he failed to win a race. Kenseth, who won a race in each of the previous six seasons, earned his last victory in this race one year ago.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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