How Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 may look

HOMESTEAD, Fla — 2 of the 4 drivers below the cutline entering Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) in Miami start on the front row. 3 of the 4 Hendrick Motorsports drivers roll off inside of the top 5.

Where this is key is, 7 of the last 9 winners came from the top 5 of the starting lineup. William Byron (1st), Christopher Bell (2nd) or Chase Elliott (3rd) can win, they’ll take one of the automatic spots to the Championship 4 in two weeks at Phoenix.

It would certainly change momentum for both Byron and Elliott as they’re backing their ways into Sunday’s race.

Byron’s last 3 finishes have been 12th, 16th and 13th respectively. He four top 10’s in the opening four playoff races are the only ones he’s had in the last 16 points paying races. His 3rd place finish in Bristol is his only top 5 in the last 25 races. His last top 5 prior?

His Martinsville win in April.

 6 of Elliott’s last 8 starts on the season have seen him finish outside the top 10.

The thing is, Byron won the last race here in 2021 and Elliott has three Top 7’s in his last 5 Homestead starts. The good news for Byron and Elliott, Homestead and Martinsville historically are good tracks for the organization and 5 of the 8 years under this format saw the regular season champion march all the way to the Championship 4 including 4 of the last 5 years.

Byron maybe has a better case for the win with Elliott a solid top 5.

Does that make Denny Hamlin on edge? He’ll only start 14th ending his 5 year reign of poles here. He enters +6 over Byron but has warned that until they get their qualifying struggles under control, they will struggle on Sunday’s.

”It’s up to me and the engineers and Chris Gabehart to figure out how we can come off the truck better (for qualifying),” Hamlin said. In qualifying, all of us were kind of off. It’s just something we have to work on. “Right now, I don’t believe we’re the heat by any means, but we’re executing well, and that’s something we didn’t do well early in the season. I love (Homestead) for sure. We unloaded best, but the field caught up to us (at the test). It’s a track I love racing at, the driver can make a difference with so many options. In the end, have to execute and not make any mistakes.”

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 31: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, reacts after the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 31, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

7 of the last 9 Homestead winners came from the top 5 of the starting lineup. 4 of the last 6 at Martinsville came from the top 5 including 11 of the last 13 coming from the top 10.

7 of Hamlin’s last 10 qualifying efforts have seen him start outside the top 10. He qualified 24th on the ROVAL and 31st last week in Vegas. If they want a chance, they have to qualify better.

Hamlin and the Team Penske trio were the strongest in the test last month and most thought that they’d be the ones to beat when returning this weekend. However, the Penske trio join Hamlin midpack on back.

After showing strong improvement in the last two 1.5-mile tracks, including Joey Logano winning last weekend in Las Vegas, most figured they’d be a threat to win Sunday’s race. However, none of the three made the final round of qualifying on Saturday.

Ryan Blaney starts 13th, Joey Logano 17th and Austin Cindric 26th.

Ford has won 1 of the last 11 at Homestead and had just 2 cars make the final round of qualifying and have just 2 cars in the top 6 of the starting lineup at that.

Does this all open up Sunday’s race to be won by a non championship eligible driver if Byron or Bell don’t win from the front row then?

It’s been a common thing during this year’s postseason that non playoff drivers are winning races. Well this one in particular could be dominated by drivers that aren’t championship eligible anymore too.

Three times has a non-Playoff driver won the Playoff race at Homestead-Miami Speedway: Greg Biffle (2004, 2006) and Denny Hamlin (2013). Also, four times a non-Playoff driver has won the eighth race in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, all at Texas Motor Speedway: 2006, 2014, 2015, 2020.

o   In 2006, Tony Stewart was ranked 11th in the NASCAR Cup Series point standings at the time of the win.

o   In 2014, Jimmie Johnson was 11th in points at the time of the win. Johnson had made the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2014 but was eliminated in the Round of 12.

o   In 2015, Jimmie Johnson was 12th in points at the time of the win. Johnson had made the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2015 but was eliminated in the Round of 16.

o   In 2020, Kyle Busch was ninth in points at the time of the win. Busch had made the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2020 but was eliminated in the Round of 12.

Among the drivers no longer championship eligible, a lot of them are strong at this track. 7 of the top 10 drivers to make the final round of qualifying are no longer championship eligible.

Prior to last year, Kevin Harvick had 12 straight top 10 finishes at Homestead and six top fours in-a-row. Martin Truex Jr. had three consecutive top two finishes and led 78 laps, 20 laps and 103 laps respectively in those races. Kyle Busch had five consecutive top six finishes, three of which being in the top two.

Kyle Larson has been so dominant on this 1.5-mile track in the past. He has three top five finishes in his last five starts there including leading 132 laps in a runner-up effort in 2016, 145 more in a third place run in 2017 and 45 laps in 2018. He’s never finished past third in any stage at Homestead either. He starts 5th.

This is also Tyler Reddick’s race. He was fourth in 2020 and runner-up last year. Reddick, has never finished worse than fourth at Homestead before and was runner-up this past September in the Southern 500 too.

“Homestead-Miami Speedway is one of my favorite tracks and I can’t wait to get down there next week,” he said after his top 10 in Vegas. He’ll roll off 7th.

Erik Jones is good at Homestead and also won the Southern 500 last month.

“We’ll head to Homestead next weekend where I feel like we made gains at the test a few weeks ago and see what we can do,” he said.

Then you have Justin Haley who is one to watch. He’s 1 of just 3 drivers to have a top 20 result in every playoff race thus far. He also has 2 top 5 finishes the last 4 weeks and if not for a late race caution in Vegas, was going to be 3 for his last 4. Haley was 3rd back in the spring race at Darlington too.

“The speed of this Kaulig Racing team is kind of coming around,” Haley says after qualifying 15th. “We had a rough summer, but with AJ working wth us, a lot of sim time at GM, we’re starting to make forward progress. It’s so hard to build a race team from the ground up. It takes time. Super proud of everyone at Kaulig Racing. Got AJ in the top 10. Good runs. We keep building this into the offseason and hopefully next year will be really good.”

They’d be among the top favorites and sleepers right?

Then you have both RFK Racing cars starting in the first 5 rows. I also didn’t mention either 23XI Racing driver who start in the top 6. That’s 4 of the top 9 starters belonging to RFK and 23XI.

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