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Carl Edwards fastest of champion contenders in final practice

Carl Edwards puts on his race suit as he prepares for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto racing practice Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in Homestead, Fla. (Terry Renna / Associated Press)
Carl Edwards puts on his race suit as he prepares for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto racing practice Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in Homestead, Fla. (Terry Renna / Associated Press)
By Jenna Fryer Associated Press

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Carl Edwards became the early favorite to win NASCAR’s championship with a strong showing in the final practice before Sunday’s title-deciding finale.

Edwards was the fastest championship contender in the category that is the best indicator for race readiness. On pure speed, his Toyota was second fastest overall in Saturday’s practice. Edwards was fifth on the chart for best 10 consecutive lap averages, and that’s typically the clue as to who has a strong car.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better practice than that,” Edwards said. “We didn’t have any problems.”

Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and teammate Kyle Busch will race Sunday for the Chase championship. The highest finisher at Homestead-Miami Speedway wins the title.

Edwards last raced for a championship in 2011, when he lost the title on a tie-breaker to Tony Stewart. Now a driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, he’s in the championship finale for the first time in the three years of this elimination format. One of the most structured and regimented drivers in the series, he’s handling the stress of a hectic championship week like a pro.

He’s been loose and funny, despite total chaos. His motorhome broke down on the way to Miami, the loaner was a dud, and when he finally got some accommodations, he had none of his personal belongings. Edwards had to make an emergency trip to a Macy’s to buy clothes to wear to a Miami Beach dinner party.

Yet he’s managed to focus on Sunday and give thought to what might transpire.

“Anything can happen in this race. You kind of visualize it being straight forward, but there’s a lot of fast cars that aren’t one of us four guys racing for a championship, so I think it’s going to be a really good battle,” he said.

Indeed, those outside the championship four are a pretty stout group of potential winners. Martin Truex Jr., the strongest driver in the first round of the Chase before he was eliminated in the second round, was fastest on speed.

Kevin Harvick had the best 10 consecutive lap average. He was eliminated from the finale last week and isn’t racing for the title for the first time in three seasons.

Also in the mix is Stewart, who is retiring Sunday from NASCAR competition. He has a decent car for his last Cup race in a Chevrolet, a brand he has long represented but will take his Stewart-Haas Racing organization to Ford next year.

Johnson, seeking a record-tying seventh championship, was ninth in the final practice. He hit a hose that fell off another car, dismissing it as “just a little scratch.”

“Driving much better, great speed, short run speed, long run speed,” he said. “We made some good improvements there at the end of that.”

Busch was 13th and Logano, trying to become the first Ford driver to win a title since 2004, was 21st and didn’t sound thrilled with his car.

“We’re OK. We need to work on our stuff a little bit,” he said. “I know we’ve been on both sides of the fence, and we haven’t been the fastest yet, so we’ll keep working on it.”

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