Three races to go, three contenders for this year’s championship trophy.
Coming off the so-called “wild card” race of the Chase at Talladega, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are separated by only 38 points – the smallest margin since the inception of NASCAR’s playoff format in 2004.
With only three more weeks before a champion is crowned in Homestead, it appears Hamlin is sitting in the catbird’s seat, poised to capture his first Sprint Cup title and dethrone the four-time defending champion.
Following his commanding win in Martinsville two weeks ago, Hamlin explained he was right where he wanted to be in the Chase standings.
“I like being behind and chasing a guy. I do not like playing defense at all,” Hamlin said.
Headed to Talladega, he knew – as did the other two contenders – the potential for disaster was lurking at any moment. While Harvick ran out front for much of the day, Johnson hung around the back of the pack. Hamlin opted for Johnson’s approach, but nearly paid the price when he lost the draft and fell a lap down to the race leaders.
When the final caution came to freeze the field and end the race, Harvick was second, while Hamlin was listed as seventh and Johnson behind him in eighth. However, after reviewing their tapes, NASCAR bumped Hamlin back to ninth, moving Johnson ahead to seventh and Jeff Gordon to eighth. Now 14 points behind Johnson in the standings, the original finishing order would have closed the gap between the two to only two points.
Still, despite being shuffled behind Johnson nearly half an hour after the checkered flag, looking ahead to the next three races it is Hamlin – not Johnson or Harvick – that will be the man to beat for this year’s title.
Since the beginning of the 2010 season, Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team have been focused on taking the title from Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports. Fighting a knee injury sustained playing basketball early in the season, Hamlin decided to have surgery on his ACL following the March 29 race in Martinsville – a race in which he won. Looking at the bigger picture, the 29-year-old knew if he wanted to seriously compete for this year’s title, surgery was a must.
Sitting 19th in the standings before that Martinsville race, Hamlin understood the season was still young and there was plenty of time to recover while still having time to climb up the standings.
“Our performance seems to turn when we get to the spring Martinsville race,” he explained. “I didn’t know the impact that the knee situation would have and obviously winning two weeks after having the surgery, I knew it was not going to be an issue. If I could win at Texas – a track I’d never won at before – then it was going to be a non-issue.”
Now coming off a solid, but disappointing run at Talladega, Hamlin is within striking distance of Johnson and headed back to Texas. In fact, two out of the next three tracks – Texas, Phoenix and Homestead – are solid tracks for the No. 11 team.
“We won the last two times we were at those last three races, so that’s a big confidence booster,” he explained this week. “But the Texas one in particular, we didn’t have a race winning car. The [No.] 24 (Jeff Gordon) or [No.] 48 (Johnson) seemed to be really good in the spring there. Kind of opened up the door for us late to get that win. We ran very, very strong there. I think our mile and a half package is better than what it was at that race in the spring.”
It is clear why Hamlin has confidence heading into the final three races of the year. Last season, while Johnson was protecting his cushion on teammate Mark Martin, Hamlin went on a tear, proving to everyone he could not only run with, but also beat the No. 48 team. Out of the championship hunt, Hamlin scored a second at Texas, a third at Phoenix and won the season finale in Homestead.
Now a winner at Texas, Hamlin has Phoenix to mark off his winless column next. Johnson, on the other hand, has four victories at the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway. Harvick also has two wins in Phoenix, but has struggled in the last three races there, finishing 30th, 24th and 13th.
And as for the reigning four-time champ? This year it seems Johnson and the No. 48 team is beatable, especially when Hamlin is on the offense, chasing his opponent.
“I’ve really felt like over the last couple years I’ve had potential to run with the No. 48 and whoever might be the championship contender,” he said. “I feel like we’ve had these opportunities, it’s just this has been the first year that we’ve put it all together. We’ve put the expectations out and then been able to succeed in achieving them. We’ve done that this year better than any other year – we’ve closed at the end of races better than we ever have.”
While he finished 30th there earlier this year, if Hamlin can emerge from his personal “wild card” race in Arizona, he will be the one lifting the trophy in the Florida the following week.