Denny Hamlin is the early favorite going into Homestead
It’ll be talked about over and over again to the point you’re sick of hearing it before next Sunday’s season finale in Homestead, but the No. 11 team’s late-race fuel miscalculation will be under a microscope if for whatever reason he doesn’t leave Miami with the Sprint Cup. Denny Hamlin had Sunday’s race in his grasp, leading the most laps (190), but in the end it was Jimmie Johnson who led the Big Three with a fifth-place finish and is now 15 points out of the top spot despite never challenging up front. So what that leaves with one race remaining is an interesting question… who is the driver to beat going to Homestead? It could be Hamlin, who had the four-time defending champion on the ropes all day, the defending champion himself who salvaged what would have been a disappointing day with the best one of the championship hopefuls, or the regular-season points leader, Kevin Harvick, who is stalking in third place and has the best average finish of the three at Homestead.
In the end, you have to give the edge to the team that’s been here before. Johnson and Chad Knaus put themselves in position to effectively control their own destiny next weekend by having a maximum points day; if they lead the most laps and win the race, they’ll take the championship no matter what Hamlin does. I expect the No. 11 team to come out and have a good day, but dangle the title in front of the No. 48 and you’ll see the type of effort that has won them four consecutive Sprint Cups.
Make that five.
Denny Hamlin should not have pitted for fuel
As for the call that put Johnson and Harvick within striking distance, if the fuel mileage on the No. 11 is as bad as crew chief Mike Ford thought it was, they couldn’t afford the gamble. It may have been tough for Hamlin to swallow, but he still has a points lead with one race remaining. If he had run out of fuel, he wouldn’t be in as fortunate of a situation and the landscape going into the final race of the season would be much different. The 10-15 spot difference between running out on track would have easily cost Hamlin the points lead, putting him back in an underdog role with Johnson holding all the cards. My favorite still remains Johnson, but thanks in large part to a conservative call, Hamlin is in a position that he would have dreamed of at the beginning of the season.
He’d do well not to forget it.
The title will come down to Johnson or Hamlin
All of the talk this week will revolve around Johnson and Hamlin, and rightfully so as their deficit is the narrowest ever going into the final race of the season. But the driver sitting in third place, a mere 46 points out of the lead, may be the driver to watch out for at Homestead. Not only does Harvick have the best average finish of the three at Homestead, but he’s got nothing to lose. Whatever Hamlin or Johnson do pit strategy-wise, the No. 29 can do the opposite. If it comes down to fuel mileage, Harvick will be the one to stretch it. Barring an accident or mechanical problem, if this team is on the lead lap in the final stage of the race they have a legitimate shot to pull the upset, with their driver the one to have the camera on in the final laps.