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NASCAR championship drivers stumble in qualifying

By DAN GELSTON,  AP Sports Writer

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Joey Logano leaned in toward Jimmie Johnson and offered a few words of comfort.”At least we all sucked,” Logano said.The four NASCAR Sprint Cup championship drivers all failed to get that one final boost they needed to better position themselves to win it all Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Logano, Carl Edwards, 2015 Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch and Johnson all will start outside the top five. Busch will start ninth, Edwards 10th, Logano 13th and Johnson 14th. Johnson would match Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty for the NASCAR record with his seventh career Cup championship.

“I don’t think any of us want to start that far back,” Edwards said.

But they are bunched close enough that one TV camera can probably catch them all as they head into the first turn on the 1.5-mile track. Busch started third in the finale last season, won the race and his first career Cup title.

The foursome likely won’t lag behind the front of the field for long.

“This is a place you can pass,” Logano said.

The highest-finishing driver among the four is the 2016 champion. Under the revamped Chase format, the Homestead winner the last two years won the championship.

Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, eliminated from title contention in earlier rounds of NASCAR’s playoffs, played spoiler and swept the front row.

“I think we’ve been the two best cars all year,” Keselowski said.

Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Ryan Blaney all will start ahead of the championship drivers.

The drivers out of the championship picture traditionally part to let the contenders race each other hard in the meat of the race.

“You get a little more respect from those guys,” Busch said.

Amid a heap of tributes, Tony Stewart starts 11th in the final race of his NASCAR career. Stewart is trying to race to his 50th career Cup victory and end a triumphant career in victory lane.

“There hasn’t been any part of my career that I didn’t enjoy,” Stewart said. “There are things about everything that I’ve done that I’ve liked more than others and disliked more than others. But as a whole, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve done and the road that I’ve taken to get here.”

Edwards and Busch are each vying to win a second straight championship for Joe Gibbs Racing. Johnson could bring a 12th title to Hendrick Motorsports. Logano wants to reward Roger Penske’s 50th season in racing with another championship.

Asked what keeps him going after all these years, Penske quipped, “Trying to beat these guys.”

Harvick, the 2014 Homestead winner and Cup champion, won his second pole of the season. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver could also deliver a victory celebration for Stewart.

Johnson was antsy to chase history.

“Qualifying isn’t my strong suit, I’m much better at racing,” he said. “So let’s line them up and go racing.”

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