Championship weekend begins today at Homestead-Miami

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A sixth Sprint Cup championship is in reach for Jimmie Johnson, but he’s still gotta go get it. Whether he can do just that – or if Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick can somehow stop him – is the top storyline going into Sunday’s Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the grand finale for the 2013 Sprint Cup season.

You know the score by now: Johnson enters Homestead with a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth after finishing third last Sunday at Phoenix. Kenseth, who failed to overcome a downright evil-handling No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Phoenix and finished 23rd, now needs to win on Sunday and have Johnson find trouble. Ditto for Kevin Harvick, who won the Phoenix race but still sits 34 points behind Johnson in third.

Both Kenseth and Harvick have vowed to play everything out at Homestead, but they realize that it’s Johnson’s title to lose. Unfortunately for them, every time he’s entered the season finale with a lead in the championship (2006-2009), he’s been able to lock it up even though he remains winless at this 1.5-mile oval in South Florida.

In fact, the three title contenders have just one Sprint Cup win between them at Homestead – Kenseth’s win in 2007, back in his days with Roush Fenway Racing.

Coming out of the box quick will be crucial for everyone involved in the title fight. After a sole practice session this afternoon (1:30-3 p.m. ET) is qualifying at 6:10 p.m. ET.

Nine of the 14 Homestead Cup races have been won from inside the Top 10 starting positions, and no one wants to open themselves up to a crash while having to wind their way through the pack.

Ask Denny Hamlin, who entered the 2010 finale at Homestead up 15 points on Johnson for the championship, but qualified 37th. On race day, he made contact with Greg Biffle and spun out early, inflicting damage to his front splitter.

His car was never quite the same and Hamlin finished 14th. Johnson finished second, which enabled him to win his fifth Cup championship by 39 points.

“Here, it seems we have a lot of green-flag runs,” said Johnson on Thursday at Homestead. “If you start down on track position and don’t have your car right come race day – [you] don’t make the most of Saturday – you’re going to have a long race and put a lot of pressure on yourself that you don’t want. The race does start with qualifying on Friday.”

There are other stories to keep an eye on this weekend at Homestead. Several notable drivers, like Chase contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Kurt Busch are still searching for their first win of the season.

Then there’s Hamlin, who has one last opportunity to extend his current run of seven straight seasons with at least one victory.

We also will be seeing several top competitors like Harvick, Busch and Ryan Newman in their final rides with their respective teams before moving on to new homes in 2014.

Altogether, there will be plenty of matters to keep us interested this Sunday at Homestead – even if the championship outcome is less than riveting.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”