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CUP: Hamlin Strongest Of Championship Contenders In Happy Hour

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After two days of qualifying and practice and a week of wondering, the three drivers in position to win the Sprint Cup championship closed their garages Saturday afternoon to await the final 400 miles of the season.

Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick participated in Happy Hour practice for the Ford 400 Saturday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway and finished in the order of their points positions.

Hamlin had the day’s fourth fastest speed, Johnson was 22nd, and Harvick was 29th.

Ten-lap average speeds recorded by NASCAR, however, showed a different story. Harvick had the fastest 10-lap average of the three, followed by Hamlin and Johnson.

Harvick, satisfied with his Chevrolet, parked it seven minutes from the end of the hour-long session. Johnson left a minute of practice time on the table, and Hamlin stayed on track until the bitter end.

At session’s end, there was no indication that any one of the three drivers had a significant edge over the others, and there also was no hint that any of the three was looking at worrisome problems.

“I’m really excited,” Harvick said. “We’re going to race hard. It doesn’t put up a fast lap, but it never slows down.”

Johnson proclaimed his final practice “not bad. We struggled a little in the first practice, but we started making gains at the end. I think we’re in good shape.”

Johnson said the balance on his car is very good and the motor is strong. He said he’d like to have more grip, “but everybody from 1 to 43 is looking for that because it’s hot and the track’s awful slick.”

At the halfway point of the Happy Hour practice, Jeff Burton, Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin, Jamie McMurray and Carl Edwards had the fastest laps. Johnson was 23rd and Harvick 25th.

Johnson’s car was loose early in the session as he slipped once on track.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.