They sat side by side by side, the three drivers who still have a shot at the Sprint Cup championship. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick took their best verbal shots at Denny Hamlin while on the dais at a ballroom in the Hyatt Regency in Coral Gables, Fla., on Thursday afternoon. "We have nothing to lose," Johnson said, smirking, as he turned toward Hamlin, "but this guy does." But Hamlin wasn't fazed. Minutes after the press conference ended, Hamlin quietly said, "Yeah, you could say I like my chances."
And, frankly, he should. Heading into the NASCAR season finale on Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamlin holds a 15-point lead over Johnson and a 46-point advantage over Harvick. How close is 15 points? It's roughly three positions on the track (depending on bonus points earned for leading laps) and that lead can evaporate in a heartbeat -- literally. Johnson says the pressure is on Hamlin because he's atop the standings; Hamlin claims the heat is on Johnson because he wears "the crown" and is the four-time defending champion; and Harvick swears he likes his position because he's a long shot and therefore "has nothing to lose."
So who is the favorite heading into Sunday? I say it's Hamlin. Over the last five weeks he's had the superior car, and if there's one thing that's hard to beat in NASCAR, it's raw speed. Even Johnson and Harvick admitted on Thursday that neither can match Hamlin's power under the hood. Yet this doesn't necessarily mean Hamlin will be your 2010 Sprint Cup champion. Because as we saw last week at Phoenix, where Hamlin led the most laps and clearly had the best car in the field, the fastest doesn't always win.
At Phoenix, Hamlin was undone by poor fuel mileage, as he was forced to pit with 12 laps to go while Johnson and Harvick were able to conserve fuel and make it to the finish line without an additional trip to pit road. The result: Despite dominating, Hamlin finished 12th while Johnson came in fifth and Harvick in sixth.
"I won't have as good of fuel mileage as the other guys on Sunday," Hamlin admits. "But I'll take having an edge in speed over fuel mileage any day of the week."
Yet, this could end up being Hamlin's fatal flaw. The last two races at Homestead have come down to games of fuel mileage and pit strategy. If that happens again on Sunday, the edge clearly will shift to Johnson. His crew chief, Chad Knaus, is the best in the sport at crafting strategy. "If it takes Chad making a bold call to win this championship," Johnson says, "we'll take it."
Johnson's strategy will be simple this weekend. "Hopefully we can qualify well, and I think we will," he says. "Then we'll try to get to the front early, lead the most laps, and see what happens at the end ... I've got a feeling that the three of us will be in the top five as the laps wind down. I just hope Denny is in my rearview mirror."
Hamlin historically has been a poor qualifier at Homestead, and he kept that trend going by notching the 37th spot on Friday, well behind Johnson (sixth) and Harvick (28th). Hamlin will patiently work his way through traffic, try to lead at least one lap to earn five bonus points, and then, using his superior speed, pull away from Johnson late to win the championship. This is, in fact, how I see the race unfolding.
"I feel like it's my time," Hamlin told me on Thursday, which was his 30th birthday. "I really, really feel like it's my time."
And so do I. He was SI's preseason pick to win it all. Thirty five races later, that hasn't changed.