At Homestead, Fla. 3P.M. SUNDAY (ESPN)

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Matt Kenseth wins the pole for Ford 400; Chase leader Jimmie Johnson qualifies 7th

HOMESTEAD, Fla. Matt Kenseth faces a large uphill climb to prevent Jimmie Johnson from running away with the 2013 Sprint Cup Series championship.

He’s at least starting first in line and heading in the right direction.

With an average lap speed at 177.667 mph during Friday’s qualifying session at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kenseth won the pole for Sunday’s Ford 400 season finale.

It’s Kenseth’s third pole of the season – matching his career high – and serves as a little redemption for the bad run last weekend at Phoenix that left Kenseth trailing Johnson by 28 points with one race remaining.

“It’s a great place to start and it’s always nice to get that first pit stall and hopefully grab some bonus points early,” Kenseth said. “All we can do is control the No. 20 (team), and we did a wonderful job of that today.

“The car was way better than I was all day. I was glad I could get kind of a decent lap and get speed out of the car.”

Even with the pole, Kenseth isn’t that far ahead of Johnson.

Johnson went out later than Kenseth in the qualifying order and ended up seventh fastest. Kevin Harvick – the only other driver still eligible to win the title – will line up sixth and trails Johnson by 34 points.

Kurt Busch qualified second, Joey Logano was third, reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski was fourth and Denny Hamlin fifth.

Kenseth said Friday’s pole-winning run was a helpful confidence booster for his Joe Gibbs Racing team and himself.

“When you go out and you have a couple runs and it doesn’t do what you want and it doesn’t respond to the changes on it, you start to get frustrated,” he said. “You try to act like you’re not frustrated but you start to get frustrated.

“When things go right, it’s the opposite. It lifts your spirits a little bit. Jimmie is so far ahead that even if he does have a problem, we need to be in the front to capitalize on that.”

Johnson, who also doesn’t consider himself a very good qualifier, was pleased with his performance.

“We (are) in the top 10, which is what our goal is with the No. 48 car, not one of the best in qualifying each and every week,” Johnson said. “We’ll take this.”

Although it would take a very bad day for Johnson to lose a 28-point lead in one race, he remained focused on his usual approach to every race weekend.

“It’s a great position to be in. There’s no doubt about it. I think back to the old points system, what that number would equal, that’s a big number, so it’s nice, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.

“I have to run all 400 miles on Sunday, and that’s really the goal for this car.”

Harvick appeared beaming with confidence after his qualifying run.

“We can win this race,” he said. “I feel really confident in the car and obviously there are going to be guys that have the cars, but I feel confident that we have a car fast enough to win this race.”

Sunday’s race also will bring to a close Harvick’s career at Richard Childress Racing, and the significance is not lost on the driver. Harvick is moving to Stewart-Haas Racing next season.

“We just have to end it with a good note this weekend and have fun with it,” he said. “Shake hands and hopefully be able to go hunting and do all the things that we do outside the race track and have fun with it.

“I’m still happy with the decision that I made, and I think everybody is going to be better for it.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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