Three-Man Shootout

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Hamlin, Johnson, Harvick to settle title battle in Phoenix and Homestead

Hamlin, Johnson, Harvick to settle title battle in Phoenix and Homestead

by Vito Pugliese

The 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup has been under fire this season — perhaps more than any other — for drawing more of a casual fan demographic (and the NFL audience) with its playoff-themed format, resulting in declining ratings, waning attendance and an overwhelming desire to see someone other than Jimmie Johnson thanking the employee-owners of Lowe’s for making good on "The Drive for Five," having just completed "The Bore of Four" a season ago.

With two races to go, however, we have a legitimate championship slugfest on our hands. Although at the onset the Chase thrusts drivers into the conversation who have no shot whatsoever to come even remotely close to being championship material, the trio of drivers that will decide it among themselves are the right ones to be doing it. Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin have consistently been the best all season, and now have two weeks to decide who will hoist the hardware at Homestead.

1. Denny Hamlin
Even if he does not manage to hold on to his tenuous 33-point lead over Johnson and 59-point spread on Harvick, 2010 will prove to be the year Hamlin made the jump from being a steady driver good for a couple of wins a year to a prime-time player who will be contending for titles and big-money wins for the next decade.

Everyone should be familiar with Hamlin’s story by now; he had surgery to repair a torn ACL in April only to clamber back into his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota a week after getting cut. He gutted it out that week at Phoenix, even enduring a shot in the door by a spinning Kurt Busch in the early going. Hamlin would win the following week in Texas to set the tone for his season and his organization.

Having sacrificed a shot at the 2009 championship with a couple of admittedly boneheaded moves, Hamlin began to take his job as a driver in the highest level of American motorsports more seriously. He took a leadership role, set the example and did whatever he could for his team — and in the process, stood in sharp contrast to his teammate in the flagship No. 18 JGR entry.

Heading to Phoenix, Hamlin looks to have the wind at his back after an underwhelming first half of the Chase. And as clich├ęd as it may sound, the title really is his to lose. It’s no secret that Hamlin makes hay on flat tracks, having garnered 11 of his 16 career wins on flats. He’s never won at Phoenix, but he has top 5s in half of his starts, as well as a pole win the first time he laid eyes on the joint.

Hamlin finished 30th at PIR in the spring following his knee operation, but was third in this race a year ago. Homestead was the site of Hamlin’s eighth career win in the final race of the ’09 campaign, a total he has doubled thus far in 2010. That win was a watershed moment of sorts, one in which he declared that he had figured out what he was doing wrong in the Chase, and would fix it the next time around. He’s done just that, playing the odds to perfection, taking the points at the precise point in the playoffs this season.

Have Hamlin and the No. 11 team finally figured out a way to out-48 the 48 team? So far they have played this game to perfection, mixing in patience, performance, and now psych-ops against the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut. With less than 600 laps of racing left in the 2010 Championship fight, their plan appears to be working.

2. Jimmie Johnson  (-33 points)
Remember how in The Andy Griffith Show, Barney Fife would manage to shoot himself in the foot with the one round he’d have loaded in his revolver? You could say Johnson and the No. 48 team did that last week, but it may prove to be more akin to Martin Riggs emptying the magazine of his Beretta into his boot.

After four straight titles, a Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400s galore and winning six races this year, the pit crew of the Lowe’s team was benched, swapped out with the crew of Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team. A bad day at the office, courtesy of some cramped pit quarters and loose lugs, precipitated a change that you can rationalize all day, but still doesn’t make much sense in the midst of a championship brawl.

The pit crew seems to have been made a scapegoat of sorts, as Johnson has not exactly been himself this season, either. A number of self-induced spins, and the new role of being somebody’s father has cause some to wonder — if not simply hope — that priorities have changed for the guy who never seems to break a sweat under pressure. A quick look at the stat sheet, however, shows that 2010 is virtually identical to three of the last four title-winning seasons.

The timing of such a move is suspect at best; Johnson is trailing this late in the game for the first time since 2005, the last time he lost a championship. PIR is one of Johnson’s best tracks (does he really have a bad one?), having won four of the last six races there and finishing no worse than seventh since 2005. Homestead remains one of the four tracks Johnson has yet to win at, though in fairness, his last four trips have not demanded a win, only to ride around and stay away from trouble.

Then again, should Johnson rally to win his fifth title, crew chief Chad Knaus will once again confirm his genius and further demoralize anyone who thinks they actually stand a chance at dethroning a motorsports dynasty that is every bit the equal of anything that ever rolled out of Level Cross, Ingle Hollow or Maranello.
 

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Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick head to Phoenix in a heated, three-man battle for the title. Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese handicaps the field.

3. Kevin Harvick  (-59 points)
One of the greatest contentions that many long-time fans and casual observers have with NASCAR is how the Chase essentially invalidates just about everything that was accomplished during the previous 26 races. So you could forgive Kevin Harvick if he were to harbor similar sentiments after having led the point standings virtually the entire season, scoring three wins while enjoying a 228-point advantage prior to the reset after Richmond.

It’s an advantage that today would stand at an insurmountable 300-point lead.

While Hamlin had his breakout season this year, 2010 could be considered a turning point in Harvick’s career as well. Don’t get me wrong — he’s still as brash and prickly as ever, feuding with foes (Joey Logano), friends (Hamlin) and teammates (Jeff Burton), although most of the dustups were temporary scuffles that didn’t linger.

Harvick’s consistency and return to Victory Lane was a boon for Richard Childress Racing, and rather surprising, since at the end of the 2009 season, it didn’t appear Harvick was long for the hallowed halls of RCR.

The key moment of Harvick’s 2010 rebound may prove to have been his win at Michigan International Speedway in August, not the pit crew swap with Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 team prior to Martinsville. It was the first non-restrictor plate win for Harvick since 2006, when he won at ... wait for it ... Phoenix International Raceway.

Harvick may not be that happy to return to a track where he swept the 2006 season, though, since he has not scored a top 10 since 2008. Although on a brighter note, his last two trips to Homestead have netted finishes of second and third.

That kind of consistency has been the secret to Harvick’s Chase success and kept him in the fight thus far. He hasn’t won a race during the Chase yet, though he was in position to win at Martinsville and Talladega — insert pit crew swap comment here. Harvick and his Gil Martin-led team really have had only one stumble so far in the playoffs, which occurred at Dover, where he recorded his only sub-top-10 showing. Still he remains in position to bring Childress his first Cup championship since 1994.

This weekend’s three-man duel in the desert provides as level a playing field as we’ve seen yet, and not just because of Phoenix’s absence of banking. PIR is one of the few venues left remotely resembling a short track, and that style of racing lends itself to more opportunities for passing, and therefore, what NASCAR is hoping and praying for: more drama.

While we can say with some degree of certainty it is going to be a good race, and a close fight down to the wire for the title, the only question is, how many people are going to be tuned in to watch what could be the best title fight in six years?