SI.com writers Lars Anderson, Tom Bowles and Brant James talk about this year's Chase for the Championship finale Sunday at Homestead-Miami.
1. What will be the most important factor in determining this year's champion?
Brant James: The Boogeyman factor: Johnson's late-summer revival was interrupted by a 25th-place finish at the first Chase for the Championship race, in which he became collateral damage in two accidents. But he won the following week at Dover to rekindle those familiar worries in his peers, and he produced five top-5s, seven straight top-10s, finished second once and third twice. And all this without finding the extra modicum of speed he's been seeking the last nine weeks.
The gulf between the No. 48 Chevrolet and Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota is the difference, Johnson said, between "good" and "great." Yet Johnson is still just 15 points from a fifth consecutive title. Having not only weathered Hamlin's best shots -- including victories in two of the last four races -- but also trimmed his deficit in the process, Johnson is in prime position to capitalize on an eventual bobble. And if he actually finds that extra speed this week, it's all over.
Lars Anderson: The driver who manages risk the best will be your 2010 Sprint Cup champion. Make no mistake: On Sunday you'll see Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick be as aggressive as they've been all season. But they need to pick their spots of when to go for broke wisely; one small slip could mean a title hope vanished.
Tom Bowles: I think it's going to come down to who handles the best in traffic, both at the start of the race and down the stretch. Here's a stat that might surprise you: The average qualifying position for the title-contending trio over the nine Chase races has been 19.8. Hamlin and Johnson have earned just one pole apiece at tracks they've dominated in recent years -- Dover and Martinsville -- while Harvick hasn't qualified higher than 14th (Talladega) the entire postseason. Sure, all three are coming to Homestead and putting their best foot forward, but haven't they done that every week? They're there to win the race, not the pole, and all three will likely be trapped in midpack for the first 50 laps. Even Hamlin, the race's 400-mile champ, qualified 38th en route to victory last year.
How hard do you race early, trying to push to the front and earn that critical "laps led" bonus while not abusing your equipment for later in the race? And will you give up time in first place to learn how the car handles in different situations, especially considering the possibility of a late-race double-file restart?
In the last seven years the track has hosted the season finale, there's been a caution inside the last 20 laps five times, including two green-white-checkered finishes. That means you need flexibility in your setup over the final segment, but you can't have it both ways. Who will adjust for the short run, who goes for the long run and which crew chief will be right? And who has a car that's capable of working through traffic if they stumble on a restart? Those are the questions that will decide the champion.
2. What are the most important strengths and notable weaknesses of Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?
Brant James: Denny Hamlin strengths: Great cars, upward arc in his talent, opportunity, smart, steadying crew chief (Mike Ford).
Denny Hamlin weakness: Hasn't proven the fox and eluded the hounds.
Jimmie Johnson strengths: Scars. He's raced at Homestead as the pursuer in 2004 and 2005 (unsuccessfully) and as the quarry the last four seasons (winning championships).
Jimmie Johnson weaknesses: He's chasing a driver with a history of success at Homestead.
Kevin Harvick strengths: Resiliency, ability to channel negativity into high performance and an emotionally tough team.
Kevin Harvick weakness: Forty-six points is just too far behind.
Lars Anderson: Johnson's biggest strength is that he rarely makes mistakes on the track. He's so smooth that he almost lulls his competition to sleep. His biggest weakness is this year in the Chase he simply hasn't possessed the raw speed that Hamlin has flashed. Johnson may have to rely on strategy to beat Hamlin.
Hamlin has off-the-charts car control; he can make his No. 11 Camry behave like a third arm. His weakness is that his emotions can get the best of him, and he'll occasionally commit a heat-of-the-moment blunder.
Harvick is a bully on the track, probably the driver who most closely resembles the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the way that he can muscle his competition aside. But Harvick is a longshot to win the title because he simply hasn't exhibited the kind of pure speed on the straightaways that Hamlin and Johnson have shown.
Tom Bowles: For Johnson, he's coming in with the best mental state of any of the three title contenders. The "been there, done that" attitude has combined with the unexpected Phoenix gift of being able to control his own destiny with the championship.
But the No. 48 team is far from bulletproof this year. For the first time, it has to actually race at Homestead instead of playing it safe. Crew chief Chad Knaus admitting four years of conservation mode gave him less notes than anyone else going in to the finale. The pit crew swap could also pose a challenge, Gordon's No. 24 team under just its second race working with Knaus and Co. Sure, Phoenix was flawless, but can the No. 24 team pit crew members keep their cool during the most pressure-packed race of their lives?
As for Hamlin, the point leader comes in with the best stats of anyone at Homestead over the last four seasons. History would say this title is in the bag if the team sticks to its game plan. But the driver's mental state has to be questioned after dominating Phoenix only to finish 12th on fuel mileage. This week, he's certainly given the impression that bad ending was put behind him, but the Achilles' Heel for this driver in recent years has been racing with his heart and not his head.
For Harvick, his strength comes in racing with nothing to lose. Guaranteed a third-place finish in points, why can't he go all out, stay aggressive and take chances the other two might not? His rebellious attitude keeps everyone around him confident, even when R-rated rants over the team radio make outsiders cringe. But to really put the pressure on, the No. 29 car has to not only win but also lead the most laps, and I'm just not sure it's capable of doing either.
3. Is there any non-title contender who could be a factor in determining the champ at Homestead?
Brant James: Carl Edwards: He won nine races in 2008, including the finale at Homestead, and was the popular pick to dethrone Johnson last year. Instead he needed 70 races to win again, that one coming last week at Phoenix. He might have something to prove on a big, big stage dominated by his Roush Fenway team.
Lars Anderson: I think it could be Jeff Gordon. Look for him to be in Johnson's ear all weekend. Gordon, who is Johnson's teammate and co-owner of his car, excels at fine-tuning setups in practice sessions, and any setup secrets he discovers he'll immediately share with his teammate and close friend.
Tom Bowles: It's Roush-Fenway Racing and Carl Edwards who are heating up. Coming off a Phoenix sweep, Mr. Backflip ended that 70-race winless streak and has won at Homestead before, taking the checkers in a fuel mileage duel in 2008. Teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle are also finishing strong, have wins of their own down in southern Florida and come into this race with incentive to either end a personal victory drought (Kenseth) or fight for a spot on stage at the banquet (Biffle). Considering Fords have won seven of the last nine down in Miami, don't be shocked if they pull off a 1-2-3 finish.
Honorable mention, by the way, goes to Juan Pablo Montoya and Brad Keselowski. Remember how both got in scrapes with Tony Stewart and Hamlin, respectively, over last year's championship weekend? If either man is running near the front, trust me, not affecting the title contenders will be the last thing on their minds. Each one of the title contenders, particularly Hamlin with Keselowski, needs to be careful around Stewart and Keselowski.
4. Who has been 2010's strongest driver? Is he different from your Sprint Cup title winner? Why?
Brant James: Strongest driver: Kevin Harvick: He led the driver standings for 20 of 26 weeks in the regular season, and after beginning the Chase third (because his three wins were less than Hamlin's six and Johnson's five) he has produced four top-5s and eight top-10s. A 15th-place finish at Dover was his only result worse than ninth.
Harvick lost a 228-point lead when the standings were reseeded for the Chase. He overcame an early season controversy over his free-agent contract status at Richard Childress Racing and the loss of sponsor Shell Pennzoil for next year. Denny Hamlin had knee surgery and Jimmie Johnson's wife had a baby. Major life events, certainly, but Harvick performed at a higher level under greater levels of duress.
Lars Anderson: The best driver for the majority of the season has been Hamlin. True, Harvick would have won the title under the old points system, but Hamlin is the one driver who -- week in, week out -- has had a car capable of winning.
Tom Bowles: No matter what happens, you have to give Hamlin credit for a career year, a personal best eight wins is near miraculous when you consider he had ACL reconstructive surgery in April. Most had him written off for the Chase, let alone contending for a championship after limping to 30th in his first race back at Phoenix. But he won the next time out at Texas, clicked off four victories in eight races and learned how to finish others. He's on track to complete more laps (over 10,500 after Homestead) than in any of his five Cup seasons.
Right on his heels comes Harvick, who was heading for seemingly certain divorce from RCR after an ugly 19th-place finish in the 2009 standings. But this season has seen a remarkable comeback, a career- and NASCAR-high 25 top-10 finishes with the type of consistency that would have him the champion in the series' old point system by nearly 300 over all others.
Jamie McMurray also makes it in there, even though he missed the Chase. This year's Daytona 500 winner was seemingly out on the street before inking a deal with Chip Ganassi last November, a second marriage that turned out to be the boost both needed to contend once again in Cup. McMurray wound up winning the Brickyard 400, too, taking NASCAR's two crown jewels while making his owner the first ever to win Daytona and both Indy races in the same year. Tacking on a Charlotte victory this fall, the team is learning consistency and has transformed into a trendy darkhorse pick to capture the 2011 title.
5. Who will win the title and why?
Brant James: Jimmie Johnson: He's made it to the final round rope-a-doping the Chesterfield kid. He's been here before. He just needs to find the one big punch to retain the belt.
Lars Anderson: Hamlin. He's been the best driver in the Chase and he loves Homestead-Miami Speedway. He's the reigning race winner here and I think he'll win again on Sunday.
Tom Bowles: One week ago, I was finally jumping on the Denny Hamlin bandwagon. Now? I'm right back off it. My pick at the start of the Chase was Johnson, and how can you go against a man who's won four straight titles against all sorts of circumstances? I think that Phoenix finish woke up a sleeping giant, and the Johnson-Knaus duo has the momentum and seems to relish the challenge of coming from behind at a track they haven't had to "race on" for five years. I'll go Johnson in a squeaker, placing second in the race while Hamlin and Harvick wind up seventh and eighth, respectively.