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Kyle Busch is top qualifier among Championship 4 at the Sprint Cup finale

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 - Qualifying
NASCAR driver Kyle Busch stands on the grid at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday during qualifying for Sunday’s Sprint Cup season finale.
(Robert Laberge / Getty Images)

The four drivers who will vie for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup championship got off to sluggish starts in qualifying Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Kyle Busch was the only one of the Championship 4 to post a lap among the top 10. Carl Edwards was just behind his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate in 10th.

Kevin Harvick posted the fastest lap in three rounds of qualifying at 177.637 mph on the 1.5-mile course in his Jimmy John’s Chevrolet.

The other two Championship 4 drivers, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson, did not advance to the third round of qualifying, falling just below the cut line in 13th and 14th place, respectively. They will start side by side in the seventh row Sunday.

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“I told Jimmie, ‘We all suck,’ ” Logano said. “I don’t know what happened. It’s interesting that we are all starting so close to each other and not toward the front. It’s not what you would expect coming here. I’m sure none of us are going to stay back there for long.”

Johnson did well to end up that high after a slow start in Round 1 and then getting delayed by a caution flag, but he was able to improve his position after sitting 29th initially.

“It’s not ideal by any stretch. I think we made the most of the situation we were in,” said Johnson, who will be seeking his seventh Sprint Cup title. “Qualifying isn’t my thing. I’m so much better at racing.”

Harvick, who finished 11th in the season standings but tied for the most wins with four, will be aiming to add to that total in the season finale.

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“It would be nice to win a race and close the season out,” Harvick said. “Came here to try to win the same as everybody else. No participation trophies.”

The added incentive for the Stewart-Haas driver will be team co-owner Tony Stewart driving his final race. Stewart qualified 11th.

“That’s the biggest reason I came to SHR was to race with Tony. That’s been not exactly what you thought it would be just because he’s not been in the car the whole time. But in the end he’s meant a lot to this sport,” Harvick said, adding that he’s not convinced Stewart is making the right move. “He seems to be content with it and ready to move on, so I need to move on from it and get over it and enjoy the last weekend.”

Dale Jr. on mend

Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, said Friday that he expects to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. back behind the wheel sometime in December.

“The doctor is going to give him the final clearance, then he’ll be back in the car,” Hendrick said. “He feels great. Everything is on track. Every step we supposedly need to go through, we’ve gone through. I don’t see anything holding us back.”

Earnhardt missed half of the 2016 Sprint Cup season, dating back to July, because of concussion-related symptoms. Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman split time in the No. 88 for the remaining races.

“I’m 100% focused on my recovery, and I will continue to follow everything the doctors tell me. They’re seeing good progress in my test results, and I’m feeling that progress physically,” Earnhardt said in September. “I plan to be healthy and ready to compete at Daytona in February. I’m working toward that.”

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Sauter is the top trucker

Johnny Sauter pulled ahead of Matt Crafton with 16 laps to go following a caution and continued on to dethrone the two-time defending champion in the finale of the Camping World Truck Series.

Sauter finished third in the Ford EcoBoost 200 but was first among the Championship 4 to cap a career year for the 38-year-old from Nededah, Wis. Logano had predicted the crowning achievement for Sauter, who rose to the top of the Chase with 12 top-five finishes, including three wins. He was fourth in the standings in each of the past four years.

“We qualified bad today and I was kind of worried about it,” said Sauter, who started 19th on the grid. “To be a champion — five years ago tonight my old man was with me when we won the race — so this is for him,” said Sauter.

Eighteen-year-old William Byron posted a series-leading seventh win of the season to seal the fourth consecutive owners title (fifth overall) for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“I think with a rookie driver they were like, ‘What’s this kid going to do?’ I just tried to prove them right all year and we just had an awesome year,” Byron said.

Sauter made his move to the front after Plantation’s Patrick Staropoli hit the wall on Lap 110, bringing out the caution flag and prompting the final pit stop for the entire field.

Staropoli, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Miami, finished 31st in his first truck race.

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‘Deadliest’ starter

The starter for Saturday’s Xfinity Series championship finale has arguably a more dangerous occupation than the drivers racing this weekend. Jonathan Hillstrand, who will serve as grand marshal for the Ford EcoBoost 300, is captain of the crab fishing boat Time Bandit on the popular reality show “Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel.

Hillstrand said, “I’m really looking forward to kicking off the race with, ‘Drivers, start your engine.’ ”

Gibbs jittery

Joe Gibbs has coached three Super Bowl winners and his racing team has four Sprint Cup titles, but he admitted to being on edge with Busch and Edwards vying for another title.

“Well, I’m not nervous or anything. I just walked into the women’s room,” he said, to laughter at a news conference Friday. “Other than that, no harm, no foul. I get so excited about this.”


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