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Martin Truex Jr. tops tightly bunched NASCAR finalists in qualifying; Hamlin steals pole

The four drivers who will vie for NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup championship are well positioned after earning spots in the top 10 in qualifying for Sunday’s EcoBoost 400.

Denny Hamlin, who just missed being part of the Championship 4 last week at Phoenix, gained some consolation when he swooped in and grabbed the pole position Friday on the final run of qualifying at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Hamlin clocked the fast lap at 173.980 mph to wrest the pole from Martin Truex Jr., the favorite among the Championship 4.

The others who will vie for the title on Sunday were closely bunched, with Kyle Busch qualifying third, Brad Keselowski fifth and Kevin Harvick ninth.

“It’s half satisfaction, half of it is disappointment. Because you only run this good for so long,” said Hamlin. “Love this racetrack. Wish that we would have our chance [on Sunday], but there will be another day, another year for us.”

Truex is the only driver among the four finalists to not yet win the series title, but he has reason to believe that will change on Sunday. Six of his seven wins this year have come on 1.5-mile tracks similar to Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“It was definitely a really good day, just 5/1,000ths [of a second] off from being a perfect day,” Truex said. “We outran the other three guys, which is good, but I don’t think it’s a big deal because we’re all pretty tight together, and this is a track you can pass on.”

Pure speed will not necessarily be the determining factor. Homestead-Miami is one of the toughest on tire wear among tracks on the circuit.

Teams will have fewer tires at their disposal than they did last year due to a rule change. Monster Energy Cup teams will be allowed nine race sets in addition to the qualifying set they start the race on, as compared to 12 race sets plus one transferred practice set last year. That will put a premium on tire management.

“It certainly is one of the more dramatic tire fall-off tracks,” Keselowski said. “At the end of the day, it’s just another challenge for us as drivers to face. That’s not a bad thing. That’s how you can make the cream rise to the top.”

Thus, Harvick said, “You just don’t want to be at the end of this race with less sets of tires than the guys that you’re racing with the way the tire strategy is. Obviously, tire fall-off is something that we always talk about here, and I think this weekend it’s going to be magnified.”

Bell takes truck title

Precocious Oklahoma native Christopher Bell capped an impressive year in his rise in NASCAR with a convincing run to the championship Friday in Camping World truck series.

Bell, 22, finished second in the EcoBoost 200, nearly 13 seconds ahead of defending series champ Johnny Sauter in his JBL Toyota. Bell crossed the finished line just behind his friend Chase Briscoe, who earned his first race win and wrapped up the truck Rookie of the Year award in the final race for Brad Keselowski Racing.

But the night belonged to Bell, who will move up to the Xfinity Series full time next year. He has already driven seven races in NASCAR’s second-tier series this season, winning once. He has the opportunity Saturday to help Joe Gibbs Racing win the Xfinity owner’s championship in the Ford 300 series finale.

Bell, who reached the Championship 4 in the truck series last year, won five races on the circuit this season and led in just about every statistical category.

“It was huge, to be able to make the final four last year and get the experience you need just to win these things is really important,” Bell said. “It’s a dream come true to be standing here, and we’ve got another one tomorrow.”

Earnhardt’s pick

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will retire after Sunday’s race, has helped a number of drivers launch their careers, including Keselowski and Truex.

Earnhardt maintains close friendships with both of them. But he said Friday that he is putting his allegiance with Truex to win the championship.

“I’m team Martin for this weekend for sure,” Earnhardt said. “Me and Brad are great friends, and I’d love to see Brad do well. But with what Martin, just as a driver, has been through, it’d just be awesome to see him put his name on that trophy.”

Truex was without a sponsor after the 2013 season and said this week that he thought his Cup series career might be over before he landed a spot with Furniture Row Racing.

Shifting roles

Tony Stewart, who ended his career as a full-time Cup series driver in last year’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, reflected Friday on his first season in which his primary role has been as team owner.

“I’ve enjoyed this year. There was one person over the course of the winter that told me this was going to be a lot harder than I thought it would be,” Stewart said. “As the year has gone on, they're right. A lot bigger challenge than what I thought it would be.

“I've been busier than I've been in the last five years. It's been nice being busy doing stuff I want to do versus things I have to do. A big difference there.”

Hot Dog Playoffs

While NASCAR is deciding the Championship 4 in its top three racing circuits, fans attending the races this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway can have a direct say in determining the Championship 6.

The latter is known as the Hot Dog Playoffs, which includes Homestead’s Magic City Dog vying with five other fan favorite hotdogs from the racing circuit.

“There will be two champions decided here. There will be the NASCAR champion and then our hot dog champion,” said Devin Ward, of Americrown, which operates the concessions at a dozen of the NASCAR tracks.

“Those hot dogs have been in a competition all year long. People are voting online. This is the playoffs.”

All six hot dogs will be available during Ford Championship Weekend at the “Dawg House” stand, which is located in the midway near Section 215.

Fans can vote for their favorite hot dog at Americrown.com. The winner of the contest will be announced on Monday.

The Magic City Dog is a strong entry, built around a grilled Eisenberg Angus Sirloin hot dog. Layered on top is a heaping array of ingredients: house-made alligator chili, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, mango ketchup and crispy potato sticks.

cldavis@sun-sentinel.com; Twitter @CraigDavisRuns; here on Facebook

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