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.

INDYCAR: Newgarden, Sato quickest in first of 2 Friday practices at Road America

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Josef Newgarden was quickest in the first of Friday’s two INDYCAR practice sessions at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion covered the 4.048-mile, 14-turn course with a best lap of 1:43.0477, followed by Takuma Sato (1:43.4729), Alexander Rossi (1:43.5603), Robert Wickens (1:43.5774) and Marco Andretti (1:43.8825).

Sixth-quickest was Tony Kanaan (1:44.0429), followed by Spencer Pigot (1:44.1080), Zach Veach (1:44.1306), Scott Dixon (1:44.1643) and Matheius Leist (1:44.2963).

Alfonso Celis Jr., making his Verizon IndyCar Series debut and with Juncos Racing, was 22nd quickest in the 23-car field at 1:44.9164, while Gabby Chaves was the slowest driver on the course at 1:46.4485.

While there were no significant incidents during the 45-minute session, a number of drivers struggled in several turns, primarily due to some lingering puddles from overnight rain, as well as on rumble strips that threw their cars into adjacent grass areas.

The second practice session today takes place at 4:15 p.m. ET.

A third practice kicks off Saturday’s busy day at Noon ET, followed by qualifying at 4 p.m. ET, the second round of qualifying at 4:40 p.m. ET and the third and final round of qualifying at 5 p.m. ET.

The weekend’s main event, Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix, takes the green flag shortly after 1 p.m. ET. Make sure to tune in to NBCSN for the live telecast of the race.

We’ll have the full practice grid and driver quotes shortly. Please check back soon.

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