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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: Handicapping NASCAR’s Chasers

And then, there were three. Three drivers: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick arrive at Homestead this weekend with a shot at the 2010 NASCAR Cup title. Right up there until the final 14 laps at Phoenix, it looked like Hamlin was going to ride into Miami with the title his to lose; instead, Hamlin and team might have found a way to lose it right there at Phoenix.

Laying odds on sporting events is emptiness and chasing the wind. Despite the Hendrick car’s normally stellar record of reliability, Johnson’s No. 48 could blow an engine leaving pit road on the parade laps. Harvick or Hamlin could get caught up in a wreck driving through the first turn. Those of you who follow the International Six Days Endurance challenge (the Olympics of enduro competition in motorcycling) heard that the sixth and final day of the contest was canceled due to security concerns in the host country of Mexico. Anything can happen. But as you get older, as I have, you come to realize, “Anything can happen, but it probably won’t.”

There’s nothing new under the sun with this trio. So here’s my take on the three challengers, their strengths and potential weaknesses, going into the season finale. Lest anyone accuses me of bias, we’ll look at the three drivers in alphabetical order.

Denny Hamlin

What he’s got going for him – As you will doubtlessly hear repeated over and over this weekend, Hamlin is the defending winner at Homestead. Of course, when he won there last year, there was no championship pressure, but only the need to go out there and score a victory to bring some happy memories into the offseason. I don’t think this Sunday the same devil may care attitude will prevail with the No. 11 team.

In addition to that win last year, Hamlin has also scored a pair of third-place finishes at Homestead for a total of three top-five results in just five starts at Miami.

This season, Hamlin has really come into his own as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. After a stunning rookie season that saw him win both Pocono races and wind up third in the points, the Virginian’s results had been, if not disappointing, at least less than compelling. But with 18 top-10 finishes in addition to those eight wins, I’d say this season has been very successful for the young man. Prior to 2010, he’d totaled up eight wins in four full years at the Cup level; this year alone, he’s doubled that figure.

At Texas, he really made the world stand up and notice with a dominating performance that saw this driver seemingly able to pass and lead at will while the field floundered to keep up. The same Looney Tune was playing, Reel 2, at Phoenix prior to that one extra stop for fuel that dumped him to 12th in the final running order, a half dozen positions behind his grateful rivals.

This year, Hamlin has seemed like a man with a plan. He made the Chase easily and told the media the strategy was to remain in contention up to and through the Talladega wild card race, then to pull the trigger on both barrels. For 298 laps at Phoenix, that plan was flawlessly executed. Unfortunately, the race was 312 laps long.

He’ll have one final ace up his sleeve to draw on this weekend, though. Team owner Joe Gibbs has coached younger players in both the NFL and in the Cup series to play their best game and win a championship… might history repeat itself?

What he’s got to overcome – Throughout his career, after the ebullience of his rookie season, Hamlin has always come across as mercurial and moody. His quiet confidence entering Phoenix was shattered by a 12th-place finish, though he left the track still leading the points. After the race, the young driver seemed thoroughly irritated, shell-shocked and near tears.

Perhaps we should give Hamlin the benefit of the doubt given his relatively young age. If you stay around this game long enough, there’s going to be afternoons a five-cent lock washer fails, costing a driver a win in a race he’s dominated going away. Eventually, a driver will win a race over a dominant rival who had his number, but suffered similar outrageous misfortune. As no less an authority than Richard Petty once postulated, “It’s a humbling game. You don’t let the highs get too high and you don’t let the lows get too low.” But that’s not how the young driver of the No. 11 car plays things. After misfortune, he’s either accusingly angry or morosely dejected. And that’s not the mindset to bring into the toughest fight of your life.

That being said, I’m left among those wondering what the No. 11’s crew chief, Mike Ford was thinking late in the Phoenix race. His driver had a commanding lead and even a second-place finish behind Carl Edwards would have been a major step forward towards clinching a title. Why wasn’t Hamlin told to back out of it a bit and conserve fuel over the last quarter of the race? Yes, statistically there should have been a late caution at Phoenix, but you know the three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics. Ironically, it might have been Hamlin’s own harsh words directed at NASCAR ($50,000’s worth, if I recall correctly) that kept the sanctioning body from throwing one of their infamous “debris” cautions to bunch the field up for one final sprint to the finish Sunday. You know what paybacks have in common with Lassie?

Finally, there’s his pit crew. While it’s the same team that brought him to the dance, last Sunday they seemed to choke a bit, posting stops routinely a half-second slower than their speedier rivals. They’ll need to do better than that this Sunday. 13-something second pit stops just won’t do.

Kevin Harvick

What he’s got going for him – Forget the points standings you’re reading this week; Harvick has earned the most points in the Cup series. Under the old points system, he’d have actually clinched the title at Phoenix. Yes, that and a dime… but that’s how Petty and Dale Earnhardt earned their seven titles, and in my mind that’s still how a championship should be earned. Harvick’s winning statistics aren’t as gaudy as his rivals, but week in and week out he has been the most consistent driver on all sorts of tracks under all sorts of circumstances.

If the No. 29 bunch has never really been a player in a championship battle, RCR sure has. They’ve won six of them and lost quite a few as well. Childress himself understands how those big trophies are won. And, like Gibbs, he can share a few thoughts with a driver diving into uncharted waters.

Harvick’s personality, while occasionally grating and cocky, seems perfect going into this weekend. He refuses to accept he is very much the underdog. Instead, he sees this goal within reach while forming the attitude, “If they want it, they’re going to have to take it from me.”

Because of his points deficit, Harvick has only one legitimate strategy this weekend. He needs to go wide open for the win, and if he ruffles a few feathers making passes to get to the front, so be it. It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. He’s been doing pretty well at Homestead the last two seasons as well, with a second and third-place finish to his credit.

What he’s got to overcome – For better or worse, this year’s title isn’t going to be decided under the old points system (or a new and improved “old” system), but under the Chase format. Looking at the numbers, Harvick needs to make up 46 points to catch Hamlin and 31 to catch Johnson. (Well, one more point than that, actually, since the first tiebreaker is number of wins.) Harvick could win the race going away and lead the most laps, but still lose to either Hamlin or Johnson if they finish in the top five. That’s problematic. It’s nice to have destiny in your own hands, instead of having to count on others to have trouble for you to succeed.

Throughout his career, one of Harvick’s biggest hindrances to his success has been himself. He’s not the most cerebral driver out there. In fact, he’s a bit of a hothead. Numerous times when he feels he’s been done dirty or even slighted on the track, Harvick refuses to realize it’s in his best interest to leave that battle for another day and move on. Slowing to resolve each conflict as he bullies his way forward Sunday isn’t a wise strategy.

Jimmie Johnson

What he’s got going for him – First and foremost, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have this Chase format figured out. They’ve won four of the damned things in a row! Johnson has made the Chase every year since the points system came into being, finished second in another one and fifth in the other. In 59 Chase races run to date, Johnson has won 19 of them. In those same races, he’s finished outside the top 10 just 15 times. Those are ludicrously good numbers.

Forget about trying to play mind games with this duo. Knaus seems particularly Zen-like in his ability to shrug off obstacles and challenges this time of year, as evidenced last weekend at Phoenix. He’s determined to get the job done, and isn’t above giving his superstar driver a little crap if he feels Johnson deserves it. My gut tells me if Knaus had left the No. 48 team somewhere during the last four-year period, Johnson would not have had four back-to-back titles… but Knaus as a crew chief almost certainly would have.

Driving for the best-funded and manned team on the circuit certainly won’t hurt the No. 48 bunch’s chances any. The Hendrick organization has won titles under the new format and under the old.

What he’s got to overcome – Homestead is one of those rare tracks that Johnson has never won at. In the last five years, he’s only managed one top-five finish here. (But of course, he hasn’t had to get one. Usually, he’s so far ahead in the points by now he arrives at Homestead needing only a top-19 finish to claim the title.) In the nine Homestead races, interestingly enough none of Rick Hendrick’s drivers have ever won. Up until last year, Jack Roush’s Fords had been dominant on the new Homestead track layout.

If Johnson is losing a wink of sleep this week, and I doubt he is, it will be recalling the 2005 Homestead event. He arrived at the track that weekend a daunting but doable 52 points behind Tony Stewart. Rather than rising to the challenge, Johnson wrecked out of the event and finished 40th. That’s the last time J.J. has arrived at this track chasing the leader rather than leading the Chase.

Then, there’s that still hotly debated crew chief swap with the No. 24 team mid-race at Texas. Yeah, Jeff Gordon’s bunch was nearly flawless in the pits for Johnson last Sunday, but the core of the now deposed No. 48 crew has been in the heat of the championship battle all those previous times. I doubt there’s anyone left on the No. 24 pit crew who was on the team back when Gordon won his last title in 2001. As anyone who works with engines long enough learns, even forged steel can crack, and it will usually do so at the least opportune time.

Finally, there’s the law of averages. Eventually Miss Fortune draws your card at the Dime-A-Dance Hall. Cale Yarborough didn’t win five straight titles. Nor did Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Gordon or Petty. (Petty came the closest to pulling the feat off, in 1971-75, but lost a cam in the 1973 season finale.) Johnson has been leading a charmed existence for a while now, and all good things come to an end.

So no matter who wins the title this weekend, it is the last Cup rodeo of 2010 before the circuit packs up their horses and cleans up their bull**** for another year. My guess is even the guys who finish second and third in the Chase are going to be just as glad to finally have a weekend off.

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