If you ask Denny Hamlin what changes he would make to the Chase format if he were king of NASCAR for a day, it takes him, oh, about a nanosecond to respond. "I'd change the schedule," Hamlin says. "We've had our share of problems at some of the tracks in the Chase. And, you know, Jimmie doesn't have those issues. That's been huge for him over the last four years."
Indeed, unlike it does for the four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, the Chase schedule doesn't set up well for Hamlin. There are certainly some good tracks in it for Hamlin -- New Hampshire (one win and a career average finish of 8.2) and Martinsville (three wins and a 6.6 career average finish) come to mind -- but he's struggled at many of the playoff tracks.
He's especially had trouble on the 1.5-mile tracks that form the core of the Chase. He's never been particularly fast at Kansas (career average finish 19.0) or Charlotte (18.5). He is, however, very good at Homestead, where he has one career win and three top-3s in five career starts. So if Hamlin is close to the points lead heading into the season finale, you've got to like his chances.
But will he be? He's hardly heading into the Chase with any sort of momentum. Though he's tied with Johnson for most series wins in 2010 with five, Hamlin hasn't reached Victory Lane since mid-June at Michigan and, worse, he's finished 34th or worse in three of his last four races. Last week at Atlanta he blew an engine after it appeared he had the top car in the field (he led 74 laps).
Momentum is a very real force in NASCAR -- just as it is in stick-and-ball sports -- and that's why Saturday night's race at Richmond, Va., is so crucial for Hamlin and his No. 11 team.
A native of nearby Chesterfield, Va., Hamlin considers Richmond his home track, and it shows. He won this race last year and came in third in the September '08 event. "It's by far my favorite track," Hamlin says of Richmond. "It's always one of the biggest races of the year for me because I went there as a kid to watch the races. The place brings back a lot of really good memories."
Based on his history and his affinity for the .75-mile short track, Hamlin is my pick to take the checkers Saturday night. He needs something positive to happen so that he and his team can regain the swagger they displayed early in the season when they were dominating the Cup series. Hamlin was SI's preseason pick to win it all. And while we're backing away from that in next week's issue of the magazine, it would surprise no one -- yours truly included -- if Hamlin does go on to win the championship. Even if he doesn't like the Chase schedule.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the green flag falls Saturday night:
1. Clint Bowyer
If there's any drama in the regular-season finale, it will involve Bowyer. Currently 12th in the standings and occupying the final spot that advances to the Chase, Bowyer holds a 117-point advantage over Ryan Newman. In other words, Bowyer likely will either have to suffer a mechanical failure or wreck to miss qualifying for the 10-race playoff.
Will that happen? Unlikely. He's only had one engine failure all season and he's only been involved in one accident that took him out of a race. The other drivers are well aware of Bowyer's precarious position, so they'll more than likely give him plenty of space on the track and not put him in harm's way. I don't think Bowyer will make much noise in the Chase, but I do think he'll make it in.
2. Ryan Newman
If Newman hadn't started the season with a crash at Daytona (which resulted in a 34th place finish) and a blown engine at Fontana (36th), he'd have a legitimate shot to sneak into the Chase. But as it stands, he'll likely miss the playoff for the fourth time in five years. (He qualified for the Chase in 2009 and finished ninth.) How will Newman do Saturday night? I think very, very well. Statistically, Richmond is his third-best track on the circuit -- his career average finish is 11.4 -- and he's reeled off three straight top 10s there. I expect he'll make it four top 10s in a row this weekend, but that won't be enough to get him into the Chase.
3. Jimmie Johnson
Was last week's third-place finish at Atlanta an indication that Johnson and his 48 team have turned a corner or was it fool's gold? I'm guessing it was the former. Though Johnson has uncharacteristically struggled this summer, we all know his penchant for turning it on when it matters most. Money time is approaching, and that should mean Johnson will be fast at Richmond, where he has three career wins.
4. Tony Stewart
Question: What driver has scored the most points over the last 12 races? Answer: Stewart.
Even though Stewart won just his first race of the season Sunday night in Atlanta, he's been as consistent as anyone over the last two months. Unlike last year, when he won the regular season points title and fizzled in the Chase, he is peaking at the absolute perfect time. I still don't think this is a championship-caliber team -- Stewart-Haas Racing is only in year two of existence -- but it's getting closer.
Stewart has flourished in the past at Richmond. He has three career wins at the track and has finished second four other times. He should be in the mix as the laps wind down, battling Hamlin for the win and the 10 bonus points the victor gets to carry into the Chase. But it says here that Stewart -- nor anyone else, for that matter -- simply won't have the speed to catch Hamlin.