Track's never been in spotlight before

Updated: November 18, 2004, 1:15 AM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Homestead-Miami Speedway isn't exactly a crown jewel of the NASCAR circuit. It hasn't been around as long as Darlington Raceway. It doesn't command the prestige of Daytona or Indianapolis. It certainly isn't as fast as Talladega.

In fact, when it opened its gates to stock car racing's best in 1995, it wasn't even that well-known in its own community. Race fans had little luck getting directions from local gas stations. And, hidden behind acres of tall grass, it's not easy to spot.

But this little-loved 1.5-mile oval will play host to one of the most anticipated championship races in NASCAR history. Only once before has the finish been so tight -- in 1992 six drivers were separated by 113 points, compared to this year where five are separated by 82 heading into Sunday's season-ending Ford 400.

And there's the possibility that, for only the third time in the sport's history, a driver might come from behind to take the points lead (and thus title) in the finale.

With the Miami Dolphins beached and the Miami Hurricanes out of the national title picture, this is the toughest ticket in South Florida. It is a race which will undoubtedly give Homestead a place in NASCAR lore. This is why track president Curtis Gray is not shy when assessing this race's place in the track's short history: "The biggest race in the history of Homestead-Miami Speedway," Gray said. "The atmosphere prior to the most unprecedented event in the history of the sport will no doubt be electric."

Fans hope that electricity continues throughout the day -- something that did not happen when the track first played host to Cup racing.

In 1999, the Pennzoil 400 presented by Kmart introduced NASCAR to Homestead-Miami Speedway. The sparks didn't fly at first sight. Fans struggled through a 267-lap event with just one caution. Tony Stewart ran away with the checkered flag long after many fans had already bailed.

In 2000, the racing didn't get much better. The track still offered only one racing groove, putting a premium on track position and putting the most exciting racing on pit road. Stewart once again claimed victory, and offered fans what little excitement came that day when he traded paint with teammate Bobby Labonte.

After that race, track ownership decided to make changes. Before the series returned in 2003, Homestead underwent a $10 million makeover that saw banking in the turns go from six degrees to a gradually-increasing 18 to 20 degrees. The surface was treated and the track went from a single-groove catalyst for boring racing to a place where cars could fight, two- and three-wide.

The track's new surface has a lot of grip, which facilitated the increased lead changes in 2003, but also presented teams with tire problems that most crews have devoted testing sessions to fixing.

"It's a clean slate," points-leader Kurt Busch said of Homestead. "It's a fresh style of race track -- not many laps have been run there. The track is now a year older so it's a bit more mature, so that will help with the racing. With the way the corners are shaped here with the flatter entry and wider exits with the banking, it's definitely a track that you don't have to worry about track position because you can pass."

The palm trees mark it as Homestead-Miami, but the track hasn't truly been special until now.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon agrees. He's 21 points behind Busch in the standings and pretty much convinced that if he wants to finish well on Sunday he's going to have to pass some cars on the track to do it.

"I don't think this championship could come down to a better place or better track than Homestead," Gordon said. "The fans are going to see side-by-side racing to decide this championship. I don't think you could ask for a better end to the season or a better end to the championship."

According to Greg Zipadelli, the crew chief who guided Stewart to victory here in 1999 and 2000, and who watched Stewart clinch the title here in 2002, the fastest groove remains the middle lane around the track. There are second and third grooves above and below the middle, but he believes the drivers who get stuck at the top and bottom will be passed.

"It's not like the bottom is the fast way or the top is the fast way like it is at Atlanta where you can go either way and still run fast," he said. "You've got to run right in the middle, and if you get above it, we watched people for two days during our test session chase their cars up the racetrack. And there's not enough room on the bottom to race a guy."

The effect is two-fold: There will be lots of battles for the prime middle-groove real estate, and there will be many desperate drivers trying to prove conventional wisdom wrong if they get stuck low or high.

Either way, this track which opened to yawns will no doubt garner cheers from Lap 1 to 267, and perhaps put itself on the map as host to one of the most exciting races staged in NASCAR history.

Here's a quick look at how the title contenders have fared at Homestead-Miami, where Busch is the only driver among the five to notch a victory to date:

Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch
Busch
Post-Construction (2003) Finish: After going three-wide on Lap 4 with Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman, Busch got knocked into the wall when Harvick got loose. He finished 36th and ran limited laps on the new Homestead surface.

Pre-Construction: Winner from the pole in 2002; 23rd in 2001; 19th in 2000.

Memorable Moment: This was Busch's last stand in 2002 as his victory here capped an amazing run to towards the top of the standings that saw him go from 12th to third. The victory made Busch the only one of the five title chasers to have visited Victory Lane at Homestead.

2004 Testing: Busch posted the ninth-fastest time of the 16 drivers to test at Homestead. His speed of 172.911 mph was slower than Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin.

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson
Post-Construction (2003) Finish: Johnson started 10th and took the lead just 22 laps into the event. Although he had a flat tire on Lap 35, he bounced back to pull off a last-lap pass on Johnny Benson to finish third and hold onto his perch at second in the final points standings.

Pre-Construction: Eighth in 2002; 25th in 2001.

Memorable Moment: The 2003 race was by far Johnson's best effort here and is cause for great confidence as last year's conditions are much more indicative of what racers can expect this year than any other year before. And though Johnson had been knocked out of the title chase by that point last year, the real intrigue was who was going to finish second. It was a pressure-filled competition for runner-up and Johnson was able to stay cool. The team hopes that serves as good preparation for Sunday.

2004 Testing: The 48 team tied posted the fourth fastest lap during testing with a 174.081 jaunt around Homestead.

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon
Gordon
Post-Construction (2003) Finish: Gordon also had a fine Sunday afternoon last season. Though he lost the battle for second in points to his teammate, he salvaged a fifth-place effort for the day and even managed to lead a few laps.

Pre-Construction: 5th in 2002; 28th in 2001; 7th in 2000; 10th in 1999.

Memorable Moment: With two races left after Homestead in the 2001 season, Gordon came to Miami hoping to clinch his fourth title. He was involved in an incident with Jeff Green early on that damaged his Chevy. The team never got its groove back, finished 28th and had to head to Atlanta the next weekend where Gordon finally clinched.

2004 Testing: Gordon posted the second-fastest lap during testing -- 175.382 mph. Afterward, he said he was pleased with how far the track has come just one year after debuting its new digs. "Tracks tend to take a while to mature, but with this track, the hot sun has allowed the track to mature very fast."

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr.
Post-Construction (2003) Finish: Junior never had a car to contend and struggled with the new grip that presented tire problems for almost every team. He finished 24th.

Pre-Construction: 21st in 2002; 15th in 2001; 13th in 2000.

Memorable Moment: Although Junior's best finish here came in his rookie year when he placed 13th, his best run was in 2002 when he started second and led 46 laps before a broken valve spring dropped and the 8 team limped home 21st.

2004 Testing: Junior posted the third-fastest lap at 174.137 mph.

Mark Martin

Mark Martin
Martin
Post-Construction (2003) Finish: Martin had a hellish day. His car didn't handle properly and the team had problems with strategy, no doubt in part due to tire issues. Martin finished 33rd.

Pre-Construction: Fourth in 2002; 24th in 2001; third in 2000; fourth in 1999.

Memorable Moment: Although Martin failed to steal the title away from Tony Stewart in 2002, he and his team valiantly fought an ill-handling race car that kept them in the middle of the pack most of the day and got off sixth during the final round of pit stops. Martin moved up two spots before the checkered fell and finished fourth. He was at his classiest after the race, tipping his cap to Stewart and thanking everyone for the fact that he gets to race cars for a living.

2004 Testing: Martin's 176.759 mph lap was the fastest of the testing sessions and gave the team great confidence. "The track was really awesome last year and racer friendly right out the box," Martin said. "It acts like it has aged four years in one year."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.

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