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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Is A Four-Time Champ The Underdog For Five? Why Hamlin’s Become The Favorite

A long, hot summer lies ahead for the NASCAR faithful. School’s out, and fans’ minds are turning toward vacations: to the track, to the beach, to the mountains, maybe all three. But in the garage, the minds of drivers and race teams are turning toward the Chase. For the past four years, Jimmie Johnson has been the solid title favorite, and proved all who called him that right with a string of championships never seen before in the Cup series. This year, even as Johnson sits in the midst of a massive slump, some are still calling him the man to beat.

Really?

As great as Johnson is in the Chase, I’m not seeing anything resembling the No. 48 team and driver that nobody could touch for four long years. While there’s certainly time for a turnaround, NASCAR can rely less on past success than perhaps any other sport. In the stick ‘n’ ball crowd, as long as a team can be kept intact and free from injury, they set their own benchmark. But that’s not the case in NASCAR, where technology plays a much bigger role. If you get behind in both simulations and setup nowadays, it’s very, very hard to catch up.

On Sunday at Michigan, Denny Hamlin sent a warning shot across the bow of the No. 48 that *he’s* the title favorite now. Hamlin easily won his fifth race of the year, running away from the field in a finish typical for a 2-mile flat oval (read: boring). Earning ten more bonus points, he extended his lead for the Chase to 20 over Johnson. Hamlin’s team was clearly firing on all cylinders Sunday, while Johnson’s looked as though there was a miss in there somewhere, finishing a thoroughly lackluster sixth and looking like even that was a struggle. A late-race caution allowed Johnson to pit for four tires, earning him six spots in the closing laps; without it, he might not even have finished inside the top 10.

In what’s also become a trend lately, Johnson started the weekend looking like the driver to beat. He was turning better speeds in practice with the car in race trim as other guys were running qualifying setups, and it looked to be shaping up to be one of those races that fans love to hate – with Johnson finally getting a win at Michigan in relatively ho-hum fashion. But instead, in what has been typical of the No. 48 team in recent weeks, no matter how good they looked on Friday and Saturday, they simply could not keep up with the car on raceday, while Hamlin’s team easily climbed ahead of the curve.

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While most people seem to feel Jimmie Johnson will be right back at the top come Chase time, his recent slump may be a sign of bigger troubles.

It used to be the other way around. In years past, it was the No. 48 that could make all the right changes to a car, turning top-10 equipment into a winning Chevy seemingly at will. This year, that’s not happening though, and the reintroduction of the rear spoiler on the race car is the prime suspect. When the CoT made its debut, Johnson had it figured out faster than anyone, and his team used that to their advantage. Now, the change has caused uncharacteristic struggles for Johnson while Hamlin, along with Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, and point leader Kevin Harvick appear to be thriving with the new package.

It’s not that the reigning four-time champ’s numbers are terrible; compared to many teams, they’re enviable. Three wins, six top-5 and nine top-10 finishes actually outshine second-place Kyle Busch across the board, and Johnson has more wins and top-5 finishes than Harvick. In fact, at this same point one year ago, Johnson had almost identical numbers: a pair of wins, six top 5’s and nine top 10’s. He was third in points a year ago; now, he’s sixth. But what those numbers don’t show is probably the most telling – and troubling – statistic for Johnson. This year, through 15 races, he has failed to finish three times. That’s more than in all of 2009 and 2008… put together.

But that’s not all. In the first 15 races of the 2009 season, Johnson had three finishes of 30th or worse. This year, there are four. That’s not a huge increase; but in a sport where constant improvement is demanded, it’s not good. Johnson’s average finish is also down nearly three spots over 2009, from 11.1 to 13.7; and that means that, increasingly, other teams are beating the No. 48.

Another thing that cannot be overlooked is the imminent arrival of Johnson’s first child. It will be a distraction – rightfully so, as it’s far more important for him personally than any race – but a distraction nonetheless. That means it will only get harder from here on out.

In the meantime, Hamlin is on a tear, but he’s by no means the only competition. Kyle Busch is second in points, and while his ruthless driving style wins him few friends on track and in the stands, it makes him a title threat for the first time in his career – if he can keep it up once September starts, which has always been Busch’s downfall in the past. Then, there’s his older brother Kurt, who has experience in not only winning a Chase title, but in beating Johnson to do it. Kurt Busch is on a hot streak of his own as of late, winning twice in May at Charlotte and sitting fifth in driver points. And despite having just a lone win at Talladega, Kevin Harvick continues to hold the point lead on the strength of his consistency.

Finally, there’s Hamlin. In the middle of a career year, the Virginian already has more wins than in any other full season of his career. He has finished 30th or worse just once, and has completed all 15 races so far. His average finish is 11.8, two spots higher than Johnson’s, and that includes an awkward first five races before he chose to have major knee surgery. The recovery time has come in the form of four wins and six top-5 finishes since it happened post-Martinsville.

The long, summer stretch lies ahead for each of these drivers. Generally, the summer months have not been kind to Jimmie Johnson, who seems to slump yearly during July and August. Hamlin hasn’t posted his best numbers during those months either, but momentum gives him an edge this year. Sure, it’s still a wide open game, but we pick title favorites through the year based on what we’ve seen so far as much as what we know they’re capable of. At Michigan, Hamlin showed just how very much he is capable of this year.

Sure, Johnson may be the four-time defending champ. But right now? Advantage: Hamlin in 2010.

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