NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Hamlin, Johnson, Harvick – Pros & Cons for NASCAR’s 2010 Title Contenders

NASCAR has finally gotten its wish.

After the inaugural Chase season of 2004 produced one of the most memorable championship battles in history, one that literally went down to the last lap of the last race, the final event at Homestead on Sunday is going to be just that — a race.

With just 15 points separating leader Denny Hamlin and defending four-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, it’s going to come down to who finishes in front of whom and who can lead the most laps. No use in either of these two being conservative. If they want to win the title, it is going to require racing for 400 miles, not riding, because waiting in the wings is the third driver in the equation, Kevin Harvick.

So with the go-for-broke mantra that will be expressed by each team in the 2010 season finale in Miami, who’s in the best position to come out on top? There are both pros and cons surrounding each driver as a pick for this year’s Sprint Cup champion.

Let’s roll them out.

1st: Denny Hamlin
Pros: Still has 15-point lead, won last year’s Homestead event. Consistently the best car on 1.5-milers all season.
Cons: Only has 15-point lead, was the first one to show signs of cracking. How will team respond after Phoenix flub?

If there was one team that the smart money said could dethrone Johnson and the No. 48 team, it was Hamlin and the No. 11 bunch. After all, who could have had a better storyline all year? Hamlin defies the critics by rallying after knee surgery to clamber back into the car and win in his second race back. A renewed dedication to preparation, physical fitness and mental toughness, has been coupled with identifying what was done wrong that prevented him from winning Chase titles in the past. Wait a minute… are we talking about Denny Hamlin or Mark Martin?

Seriously, Hamlin has posted the most wins this year and has consistently had the best car throughout the season. The “All We Do Is Win” mantra was exercised at the big tracks like Texas, Michigan and Pocono, the short tracks at Martinsville and Richmond, as well as an in-betweener at Darlington. With that in mind, Hamlin should have been a shoe-in at Homestead, particularly having won there last year — a win that convinced him what it was going to take to win the Chase in 2010.

That was, until last week at Phoenix.

A thirsty Toyota – to the tune of over 14 miles short on gas – prevented Hamlin from winning a race in which he led 190 laps, instead relegating him to a 12th-place finish. Hamlin threw a couple of Rampage Jackson-quality rights at his dashboard, then fired a water bottle at his car. Pretty tame considering he just threw away a win and another 40 points on fifth-place finisher Johnson.

How this group responds will determine whether they take home the title. One miscommunication, moment of mistrust on an adjustment or bad pit call could snowball out of control off the coast of Cuba this Sunday. But if they just stick through it and do what they did all year, the FedEx team is in the best position to be able to mail home Joe Gibbs Racing its fourth Cup championship.

2nd: Jimmie Johnson
Pros: Can go for it and race with impunity. Borrowing the No. 24 pit crew has worked out; they’ve been nails on pit road. Just the No. 48’s presence in this Chase is a mind game.
Cons: Hasn’t fared well at Homestead when trailing. Needs to out-Hamlin Denny at big downforce track, uh… the beard still looks weird. I’m searching here…

Following his fifth-place finish at Phoenix, Johnson looked like Sylvester the Cat with a few errant yellow feathers flying out of his mouth. After all of Mike Ford’s big hat bravado at the Texas press conference following the No. 11 team’s win, the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy collectively showed why they haven’t been able to be beaten the last four years: When it matters most, they don’t falter.

Yeah, Jimmie might spin himself out and Chad has run it out of gas a few times, but not during the Chase and not since five years ago – at Homestead.

The psych-ops this bunch initiates are subtle and simple; they just do their job. The mere presence of them might cause the other two to stumble or make a decision they may not otherwise consider if it were anybody else in contention.

The pit-crew swap at Texas, while controversial and unpopular in some circles (i.e., mine), has been a bit of a non-issue. They were quick at Phoenix, no doubt, but it was strategy and fuel mileage that helped secure the top five the Lowe’s team needed to get back within striking distance. It was the same stay-out-and-pedal-it strategy that allowed them to steal a win at PIR in 2008, and they did it again last weekend, potentially winning a championship in the process.

If there is a point of contention this weekend, it’s that Johnson and Knaus have never really had to race that hard at Homestead. Johnson will have to go the Alan Kulwicki route, leading the most laps in the final race while still finishing a couple of positions ahead of Hamlin. In 2004, Johnson needed to win the race to win the title, but fell one position short. It would have been another five bonus points for leading a lap, and five more for the position, resulting in what would have been a two-point title win over Kurt Busch.

In 2005, the No. 48 team was a bit of a mess, with Johnson trailing Tony Stewart by 52 points entering Homestead. They qualified 32nd, then Johnson drove around for a couple of laps with a flat tire before wrecking it before halfway, all while Stewart cruised home in 15th to take home his second championship.

Expect more a replay of ’04 than ’05 this time around, with a win likely needed – one he’s never earned at Homestead – to clinch the fifth consecutive title for Johnson, Chad Knaus, the No. 48 Lowe’s team, and some of the No. 24 team, while we’re at it.

3rd: Kevin Harvick
Pros: Nothing to lose. Homestead is one of his best tracks. RCR’s got the best engines in the business right now.
Cons: Does not control his own destiny. Needs to count on two of the best teams in NASCAR to struggle at the same time. A win is required to have any sort of hope for the title.

Might the one they call “Happy” add the ultimate prize in NASCAR to the mantle of his relatively short career? The 2000 and 2006 Nationwide Series champion is in the best position yet for him to win a Cup crown, which would look pretty nice next to those two Grand National trophies and that pair of Truck Series owner’s titles from 2007 and 2009. Although he has just 14 career wins in 10 years of Cup competition, Harvick is on pace to become one of the most prolific championship-winning drivers and owners in history.

But first, he has to race the race this Sunday. If there was ever a venue it was all going to come down to other than a plate track, this oval would probably be the one to best set him up to contend against the two most successful teams of 2010. Harvick’s last two finishes at Homestead are a third and a second, respectively, and he’s experienced only one non-top 10 since the track’s reconfiguration in 2003.

Having led the regular season points standings, Harvick has been a pillar of consistency throughout the Chase. His worst performance being a 15th at Dover, all the rest have been eighth or better. Top 10s are nice, and Harvick has eight of them in the Chase – but an absence of more wins in the regular season and a postseason shutout has him trailing Hamlin and Johnson going into the season finale. While I have said that the front two will likely need to win the race to capture the championship, Harvick really needs to win and needs the other two to do something ill-advised, like wrinkle the car, have a pit-road collision, blow an engine, suffer loose lugnuts (Harvick probably can speak to that one)… anything else that would place them seventh or worse in the final rundown.

Under the classic points system — the one which saw Harvick lead the standings for the majority of the 26-race regular season — the title would have been wrapped up last week in Phoenix as soon as the No. 29 fired up, courtesy of the 300-point lead he would have had under the “old” format. Well, it is going to take a bit more for Richard Childress to win his seventh NASCAR Cup title this time, what would be his first since he last won the 1994 Winston Cup with the late Dale Earnhardt.

So how will this mess all shake out? You can make a case for Hamlin having won the most races and overcoming setbacks this year, or you can go Johnson with the recent turn of events and the ability of the No. 48 team to rally back from just about anything short of connecting rods sticking out of the engine block. For Harvick to win, it may require something short of a miracle. However, I didn’t think he’d be able to maintain this pace for 10 straight weeks, and by all rights he has done so for the last 10 months.

What I do think will happen is something that Johnson’s team owner Rick Hendrick mentioned this past summer: The 2010 Sprint Cup very well could be decided on a late race, double-file restart. That comment, as well as the first Texas race this spring, will serve as the foreshadowing of who will hoist the Sprint Cup at the conclusion of the Ford 400 this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Look for it to come down to a restart, with Hamlin and Johnson door-to-door for the title. I’ll take Hamlin by a hair.

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