Chase's top three title contenders have varying formulas to success
Three races left for the Sprint Cup title. Three men left in position to grab it. Three very, very different approaches on how to make that happen, all carrying each drivers' personal chance at redemption.
There's a reason why people are calling this Chase the most competitive in its seven-year history, beating even the 2004 edition where three drivers entered Homestead-Miami with a shot at the title. In that finale, you had two drivers from the same team, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon of Hendrick Motorsports going against Kurt Busch and his then-employer, Roush Racing. This time around, it's a trio of different organizations and philosophies that are positioned on this post-Election Day vote, polarizing opposites that ensure the championship will go down to the wire -- the perfect ballot box initiative as to whether the Chase will ever engage the fan base.
In one corner, you have Jimmie Johnson, his Chase defined by an uncharacteristic quality not often seen in his four years as series champion: coming from behind. Yes, on paper he's held the point lead every race since Kansas at the end of September, the second in his current streak of six consecutive top-10 finishes. But a quick look at the stats shows how hard he's had to work for a happy ending. The questions start up front, the No. 48 leading just 240 circuits in seven postseason starts, lower than in any of his four-straight title bids up to this point. Considering 191 of those laps came at Dover, the lone race where his Chevy team showed any hint of dominance from start to finish weakens that statistic even further.
The cracks in the armor for this team start on Fridays, as Johnson has qualified outside the top 20 twice already this fall -- compared to twice in 40 postseason starts from 2006-09. A Hendrick-backed fleet that thrives on clean air has instead needed to be tweaked in traffic, track position further hampered by a troubling inability for the Lowe's Chevy pit crew to close the deal. At key times in races at Martinsville, Charlotte and Kansas the team has lost four spots or more, putting its driver in the type of double-file restart jeopardy that snuffs out championship bids.
That's put the pressure on the man behind the wheel, with Johnson responding with impressive drives through the field: 21st to 2nd at Kansas, 32nd to 3rd after Johnson's lone self-induced mistake -- spinning on his own early on in Charlotte -- and even ninth to third at Fontana over the final 40 laps of that run. It hasn't been pretty, but overcoming adversity has built more confidence than usual for an outfit that knows it's no longer light years ahead of everyone else on race day.
"In years past, there have been segments of a season where, yeah, I've had that confidence," Johnson admitted at Charlotte. "Coming into the Chase, I didn't have that confidence. I didn't think we were in that position, and maybe that's what everyone was kind of noticing and thought we were vulnerable because of that."
Some of that vulnerability remains as his main challenger, Denny Hamlin, has won two of the last three races in the last year: Texas and Homestead. But Johnson maintains the key to the title is keeping the same approach they've had in past years, blocking out distractions combined with maximizing aggression until the final lap of the final race at Homestead.
"It's really the same mentality," he said of a 14-point lead as opposed to 184 a year ago. "We need maximum points. Of course, it's a little bit more forgiving or easy on your team and yourself with a big points lead. But we don't have that this year. We're going to have to race, and we're ready for it."
Denny Hamlin appears ready to race as well, seven rounds into a Chase that could best be described as "Survivor: Jimmie." Like a Democrat building his campaign, then holding on for dear life to hope a Republican landslide doesn't sweep him away, Hamlin's first five races were all about not falling too far behind the No. 48 and others while preventing the type of deadly DNF that's defined his four previous Chase appearances. By and large, they've done that, marking points on the boxing scorecard although absorbing punches by finishing behind Johnson in five of the last seven races.
That's par for the course for a team that, this March, was in survivor mode and preparing for substitute driver Casey Mears. Tearing his ACL in an offseason basketball game put a wrench in Hamlin, this year's trendy preseason pick to win the title, but his resilience to pull through the resulting in-season surgery was what invigorated this program. Initially choosing to wait until November, Hamlin was in too much pain and showed an inconsistency that bumped up the surgery to the end of March, an announcement made after zero top-15 finishes in the season's first five races. Yet one week later, he was winning on that gimpy knee at his best track, Martinsville, the trigger to what would become a post-surgery recovery most stick-and-ball players would die for: getting back in the car less than 10 days later, he won four of the next nine events to reassert himself as Johnson's main challenger.
Now, the main question becomes if Hamlin can reassert his mojo at the right time. After a sizzling summer, the sport's win leader produced a grand total of one lap led in the first half of this postseason, posting a similar Johnson-like record of coming from behind with an average starting position of 19th. Even at Martinsville, his Chase-defining win was tempered by a 460-lap gap between surging up front, his team searching all day for a setup after dropping like a rock at the start with an equalized tire.
What Hamlin has shown through it all is the newfound maturity that's grown the 29-year-old into Joe Gibbs Racing's unquestioned leader, keeping the No. 11 from collapsing even during the worst moments at Talladega last Sunday, where losing the draft as a driver cost him a lap for well over half the distance. He maintains a ninth-place finish there is exactly what he wanted, the last bullet dodged despite a look of despair exiting his car as if he'd missed an opportunity to make a statement and wrest the lead away from the No. 48.
"Fourteen points is not impossible to make up -- especially when you consider that it's not many spots on the race track," he said. "We definitely have our work cut out for us now. We know we need to race for wins and not make any mistakes from here on out."
So now he steps on the accelerator pedal, past history on his side, but with no real clue about what his team really has. That's the difficulty of playing it safe, just 45 laps led in seven Chase races making their upward ceiling a virtual unknown.
And lastly, there's the wild card, Kevin Harvick, seemingly written off until a second-place 'Dega finish boosted him within 38 points of Johnson. Harvick's organization and his mouth have combined to do almost everything to lose this Chase. From teammate Clint Bowyer's controversial 150-point penalty after winning at Loudon, a hit that caused a ripple effect through the entire organization to Harvick's ill-timed hit of Marcos Ambrose on Sunday, a wreck which turned his No. 29 front bumper into a junkyard part for Halloween this team's faced adversity every single week. Of the three remaining contenders, they're the only one to go winless this postseason, a difficult hill to climb unless they can buck the trend these last three weeks (Tony Stewart in 2005 is the only one to take the Chase without a victory).
Harvick's response on the radio to adversity is often to go ballistic, unprintable R-rated blasts against his car owner, head wrench and pit crew that often make you wonder if Bobby Knight has trained him. It's an unconventional method of motivation, pushed further by what seemed a desperate move to switch the over-the-wall crew with Bowyer two weeks ago after the No. 33 was all but eliminated from title contention after his penalty. In a team sport disguised as an individual accomplishment, turning the knife on the men who brought you to the promised land is an intriguing method of survival.
But no one can argue the end result: Harvick -- the lone man standing in an RCR program that also has Bowyer and Jeff Burton running so well -- now has the equivalent of two strong R&D programs every weekend to help the team win the title.
"You can't be conservative," he said about the final three races post-Talladega, an understatement to a year begun by his aggressive play to leave Richard Childress Racing and ending with the most unlikely partnership-turned-champion comeback in NASCAR history after running 19th in points a year ago. "You can't go [to Texas] hoping for a top 10 because, as you've seen over the past few years, top-5s, leading the laps is what it's going to take over the next three weeks."
So with all that said, who's the favorite? I still have Johnson by a hair, but not by much. Anything can change in a vigorous campaign that's ready to enter its final stages.
"We've gone through seven races," said Harvick. "And you can throw a blanket over the three of us. It's really going to just come down to dotting the Is, crossing the Ts, keeping that performance level where it needs to be. If you go to one of those three tracks, if it's your off week, you're in trouble."
"Forcing it usually leads to mistakes."
But considering the resilience of this trio all season, they're all expected to be error-free. That means for the first time in its seven-year history, the championship under this format will actually be decided on the track by its three best drivers, ones who have proven themselves throughout a rough-and-tumble 33 races in which they've already won 16.
So let the best man win, and let this post-Election Day brilliant matchup determine for good if fans can once and for all latch onto this playoff -- or not.