Brant James
Tuesday November 16th, 2010

Well now, this is dramatic. But Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, the three Chasers within 46 points of hoisting the Sprint Cup championship trophy, won't race in a vacuum on Sunday in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Millions of conjoined parts, agendas and emotions will spin around them like fly wheels. Here's a small sampling of 10 variables they, individually and collectively, might have to address.

1. Crushing, impending dread: Denny Hamlin led 190 laps at Phoenix, was the clear class of the field, and with a likely 195-point day would have all but ended Jimmie Johnson's attempt to win five consecutive Sprint Cup titles with just one race left in the season. Then, for one of the few instances this season, his equipment, or the plan, or a combination of both, betrayed him. His No. 11 Toyota was producing such poor fuel mileage that he had to surrender the lead in the final laps -- as Johnson and a few others nursed their cars on a marathon 88-lap run -- and settled for a disheartening 12th-place finish. A possibly overbearing points lead -- which stood at 33 before the race -- had been diminished to just 15. The look on Hamlin's face as he sat dejected on a pit wall was of the challenger who had just missed a putt, the wide-open net, or didn't bar the door with the barbarians storming across the moat. The weight of missed opportunity can be a hefty load.

2. Taste of blood (or fuel): Johnson, admittedly poor in fuel conservation situations, had the No. 48 Chevrolet running sufficiently well to have wished he'd contested a few more positions on the final lap. But there was little remorse on his face. Used to being the pursued this time of year, he seemed inspired by the masterful, daring call of crew chief Chad Knaus and the execution in making it work. And he seemed devilishly pleased by the pressure he was suddenly applying to Hamlin, so much so he mentioned several times in a post-race television interview that it would be hard for the would-be champion not to dwell on the final laps at Phoenix for a long, long time. There is the feeling this, Johnson's most harried of Chases, might be considered his most gratifying if he concludes it with another championship. Either way, he is clearly the attacker right now.

3. The bad penny: Kevin Harvick has always displayed an affinity for being the discounted outsider. Last week he questioned Hamlin crew chief Mike Ford's reasoning for making comments that motivated Johnson's team and Hendrick Motorsports after the much-publicized midrace pit crew swap between Johnson and Jeff Gordon. This week he was tweeting about being disrespected by the media, which is somewhat ludicrous, but if having an enemy to prod perpetuates the way he's raced this year, so be it.

Harvick, who led the standings for much of the regular season, has displayed an uncanny ability to turn up in the top-10 late in races no matter the duress he's sustained on pit road or in brushing walls or other race cars. He will not go away. At 46 points out entering the final race of the season, he remains a viable contender for a first title. And how he would revel in denying the younger upstart, Hamlin, or ending the championship run of a fellow Southern Californian whose careers have intersected since before they began driving Cup. Both Harvick and Johnson, having moved to the Charlotte area to find their fortune, bunked for a few months at Ron Hornaday's Lake Norman, N.C., home in 1999, fishing, Jet skiing, before each was discovered by their current team.

4. The value of boldness: Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus coerced his driver into milking 88 laps out of a tank of fuel, salvaging a fifth-place finish. Too many strategies are likely to be in play on Sunday to do anything but attack.

5. The value of care: Of course, Knaus had Johnson stay out at Homestead despite protestations of a failing tire as they pursued Tony Stewart and a first title in 2005. The tire blew. Johnson crashed and finished 40th. Stewart, who was languishing, and therefore spurring Johnson and Knaus to attack, won the title by 35 points as Johnson fell from second to fifth in final points.

6. Homestead resume: Hamlin won at Homestead last season, finishing the season with a win, second- and third-place results, and a burst of momentum into 2010. He's finished first and third twice in five career starts at Homestead and was 13th in 2008. Most interestingly, he's done so with an average starting position of 34th. Homestead is just one of four current Sprint Cup tracks on which Johnson has not won, but he's not had to really race there except in 2004, when he finished second and missed a first title by eight points, and 2005. Johnson has won the pole two of the last three races at Homestead and led laps each year since 2006. Another front-row start would seemingly increase the pressure on Hamlin, regardless of how well Hamlin has normally come through the field.

7. Something that costs $5: Hot dogs wrappers, lug nuts, excessively large Palmetto bugs, whatever beverage Jamie McMurray litters on the track this week (McFlurry anyone?). Tiny little things cost championships.

8. Knaus vs. Ford: Pick your own adversarial matchup. It's the bright, driven master of the series since 2002 against the bright, driven man who wants to take it away.

9. Esprit de corps: It just feels more plausible, given the lengths Hendrick Motorsports has already gone to bolster Johnson's title effort, that its collective focus could be brought to bear for Johnson than Joe Gibbs Racing's for Hamlin.

10. A Roush-Fenway driver: Both Hamlin and Johnson have clear-cut clinch scenarios. Hamlin, who wins all tiebreakers, captures the title by winning or finishing second and leading the most laps. Johnson clinches by winning and leading the most laps, regardless of Hamlin. Although Hamlin won the race last fall and Johnson has been fast at Homestead-Miami Speedway (finishing second in 2004) in races that weren't glorified victory laps, they will be pressed for the race trophy.

There figures to be a Roush Fenway driver impeding the way, and that could complicate matters for all three title contenders. Roush had won five Homestead races consecutively -- and six of seven -- until Hamlin's victory last fall. Carl Edwards, the 2009 winner who broke a 70-race winless streak at Phoenix, might be particularly pesky.

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