Championship 4 drivers remain confident following qualifying

Seth Livingstone - NASCAR Wire Service Friday, Nov 14 1285

Defending race champion Denny Hamlin says he knew he had the car to win last year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and he did.

Asked how "close" his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is this weekend to the car he had a year ago, Hamlin demonstrated he had his sense of humor if not quite the same speed.

"Last year's winning car is scrapped somewhere, so it's pretty far away," said Hamlin after qualifying for Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET on ESPN).

"We don't have that all-out speed. That we haven't had all year. But we're very encouraged by what we've seen so far. We'll figure it out on Saturday. Our expectations are to win the race. I think we're fully capable of doing that."

Hamlin, whose only win in 2014 came in the 10th race of the season at Talladega, will start eighth on Sunday. He'll roll off three positions behind Kevin Harvick and one spot ahead of Joey Logano, Sprint Cup title contenders who reached the 12-car final round of Friday's qualifying session.

The fourth contender, Ryan Newman, failed to make the final round. Although Newman's Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet will start 21st, he remains undeterred.

"A buddy of mine once said,  it's not where you start, it's where you stop' and we've got half of (the field) beat to start," Newman said. "We've got 267 laps to beat the other half on Sunday."

Of the four drivers vying for the championship, Harvick clearly had the fastest car on Friday. He was second to Brad Keselowski in practice, second again to

Keselowski's track record (181.238 mph) in the first round of qualifying, and fifth at 179.946 when the field was set.

"Everything went according, pretty much, to what we wanted to do," said Harvick, fresh off last week's victory in his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet at Phoenix. "I know we can get the car better (Saturday) in race trim and now we have a good spot to start. All and all, we have a lot to look at and a lot of resources to pull from.

"I just want consistency from my car and enough tape on the window so I can see going into Turn 1."

Joey Logano was happy to advance through the first two rounds of qualifying in his Team Penske Ford.

"I felt like we unloaded in race trim and had good speed in our car," Logano said. "We switched over to qualifying trim and the speed didn't transfer. We were third in the first round (of qualifying) and that surprised the heck out of me."

None of the four finalists came close to challenging Coors Light pole-sitter Jeff Gordon, who delivered the 200th all-time pole for Hendrick Motorsports.

But Harvick will have a Hendrick engine under the hood.

Harvick said it will be important to have a car than can excel on the bottom of the track, then move to the top as the race goes on.

"This is going to be a race where you go through some changing conditions," Harvick said. "The top is treacherous. It's six inches away from you at all times in order to run as fast as you need to. That's hard to do during the daytime.

"I think you have to be aggressive. I think everybody is going to be aggressive. (But) I think you also have to be smart about where you put your car and who you're around.