In Saturday’s final one-hour “Happy Hour” session, Edwards again was the fastest car to be found, just as he was in qualifying and the prior two practices. Edwards, who is riding a 70-race winless streak, put down a best lap of 132.343 miles per hour Saturday afternoon, his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford continuing to be tops among the 43 cars in the field.
What was interesting, though, was who was behind Edwards. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second fast at 131.733 mph in his No.. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, followed immediately by teammate Jeff Gordon's best lap of 131.690 mph.
Then came the Clash of the Titans. NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Denny Hamlin was fourth, his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota clocking in at 131.128 mph, vs. 132.105 mph for fifth-place Kevin Harvick. Four-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was seventh, his best lap being 130.947 mph — plenty competitive.
So it ought to be a tense battle for supremacy on Sunday. Hamlin comes into Sunday’s race with a 33-point lead over Johnson and a 59-point margin on Harvick. And now, with all three running well, it’s a virtual toss-up.
Hamlin said he sees the race as wide open among the three.
“I’ve never, not one time, thought that this was a two-horse race. You can look at my comments every single weekend. I constantly bring up the 29 (Kevin Harvick) as a factor,” Hamlin said. “They probably, if anything, feel slighted because in the media they don’t get that much recognition, but for me, I don’t treat either one differently.”
Johnson, for his part, said his prime objective is to finish ahead of Hamlin on Sunday.
“We have to beat him,” Johnson said of Hamlin. “I’m not sure where they’re going to finish, but again, we need to expect the best out of them and that’s going to be those guys running up front. We need to lead a lap, hopefully lead the most laps and win the race. Again, at the end of the day, it’s relative to where he’s running or where he finishes and we just don’t know until we get on the track and get out there and see what goes on in the race.”
Harvick, too, is amped up.
“Just throw it all out there and if it gets rough, it gets rough,” Harvick said. “If it doesn’t then we just go race and see where it all falls in the end. It’s still a no pressure, no lose situation for us and I like it. I like coming from behind. I like when people write us off – it’s kind of like or how everybody’s been my whole career. You just go out there and it’s fun to come up and see everybody after that.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.