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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.