NASCAR’s stars align at season’s halfway mark to Homestead-Miami Speedway for Ford Championship Weekend

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When NASCAR recently visited Homestead-Miami Speedway’s neighbor to the north—Daytona International Speedway, for the Coke Zero 400—it represented roughly the halfway mark to Ford Championship Weekend in Miami (Nov. 20-22). And at Daytona, NASCAR’s top names stood atop the Chase for the Sprint Cup leader board: Stewart, Gordon, Johnson, Edwards and the Busch brothers.

After 17 of 36 races, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup standings read like a who’s who of NASCAR fan favorites: Stewart, Gordon, Johnson, Edwards and the Busch brothers among those with an eye on the Championship Trophy to be awarded at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22. Great seats are available for Ford Championship Weekend—click here.…All of which has Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami shaping up to be quite the series-crowning finale.

So far this year, NASCAR has been fantastically unpredictable. From the drop of the green flag at Daytona in February, the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has had more plot twists and turns than an episode of “Lost.”  Let’s take a look at the road that leads to Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 20-22.

To kick-off the season, Kenseth won the rain-shortened Daytona 500, providing storied team-owner Jack Roush his first-ever first win in the “Great American Race.” With 152 of 200 laps completed, the race was called short of the finish for only the fifth time. “It's pretty unbelievable to be able to sit here and be able to actually be in the Daytona 500, much less win one,” Kenseth said. “It's just a dream come true.”

And Kenseth was just the initial of three first-time-winners through the first half of NASCAR ’09. Part-time Sprint Cup-driver Brad Keselowski shocked the racing world when he won in Talladega in late April—in the process bumping last year’s Miami winner, Carl Edwards, and sending the No. 99 into the guard fence in a terrifying crash. Edwards somewhat-miraculously was uninjured, but we all likely will be seeing the crash footage for years to come.

Other first-timers: Tampa-area native David Reutimann got his first Cup win in a rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Memorial Day; and in late June, 19-year-old Joey Logano became the youngest winner in Cup Series history when he scored his first win at victory at his home track in New Hampshire.

Another huge story through the first half of 2009: Daytona Beach resident Mark Martin’s epic resurgence. Returning to the Cup Series full-time this year with new team Hendrick Motorsports, the 50-year-old veteran went to Victory Lane three times in the first 17 races, recording wins in Phoenix, Darlington and Michigan—putting himself in the thick of the points battle alongside teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

And yet the biggest story of NASCAR ’09 through the season’s first half was probably none other than Tony Stewart. With the close of the 2008 campaign, “Smoke” ended his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing—after 10 years, two Championships and 33 wins—to take an ownership role with the newly formed Stewart-Hass Racing.

The owner/driver formula rarely has played to success in NASCAR’s top series, with 1992 Champion Alan Kulwicki the only one to hoist the Cup trophy. But Stewart was writing a new book in the first half of 2009, with a win at Pocono, nine Top 5s and 13 Top 10s—the most among first-half competitors.

Stewart was among the Top 12 in points the entire first half and wasn’t showing any signs of weakness. On top of that, his teammate/employee, Ryan Newman, sat No. 7 in the standings through 17 races—making for quite a duo in the inaugural year of Stewart-Haas Racing. A brand new team with new drivers, new crew chiefs, new pit-crew members and new sponsors is the talk of NASCAR as Stewart eyes Championship No. 3 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 22.

Among the other big storylines to keep an eye on en route to Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 20-22:

● Double-File Restarts: NASCAR instituted them prior to the June 8 race at Pocono, mandating that competitors would start side-by-side every restart rather than just at the green flag; the additional drama was well received by NASCAR fans.

● Gordon: Sat second to Stewart in the Chase standings through 17 races and will be seeking his fifth Cup Championship on Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—the one track at which the No. 24 car never has won.

● Some Stewart Bravado: Tony made some news in late June with a bit of a swing at three-time reigning Champion Johnson: When then-points leader Stewart was asked about the No. 48 team potentially “getting it together,” the owner/driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy remarked: “I look at it this way: ‘How scary is it for them that a new team is sitting here leading the points?’ That's no disrespect to them but we feel like we've got room to gain each week, too. This is our first time around with each other through the first half of the season. We're just now getting ready to go back and start working off the notes that we first established at the beginning of the year. I'm not worried.”

● A new crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr.: In late May came the announcement from Hendrick Motorsports that “out” was Junior’s crew-chief cousin, Tony Eury Jr., and “in” was Lance McGrew. But would the change be enough to launch Dale Jr. into contention for one of the final Chase spots headed to the Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22?

The Chase standings are still to be determined, but the drama and thrill of Championship racing at THE Championship Tracksm is guaranteed. Great seats (starting at just $55) are available for the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, to be decided at Homestead-Miami Speedway during Ford Championship Weekend, Nov. 20-22.

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