Hamlin shows future promise

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They had plenty to discuss. Hamlin and Ford struggled for most of the race with the handling of their Camry. For one long stretch it was too tight through the corners -- meaning the front end pushed up the track -- and at other times the car was too loose, how drivers describe the condition when the back end of the car drifts up the track through the turns. Even though this clearly wasn't Hamlin's best race, he managed a 12th-place finish, which is why in the magazine this week I describe Hamlin as becoming, well, the next Jimmie Johnson.

Hamlin and I chatted for several minutes as he walked through the shadows in the Kansas garage on Sunday. I noted to him that the way Johnson has won four-straight championships is that he makes the most out of his bad days, which is precisely what Hamlin did in the Jayhawk State. To me, Hamlin's performance on Sunday was championship caliber -- even though he didn't finish in the top 10.

"I've never really felt comfortable at Kansas and it showed today," Hamlin said. "But you're right: It was a bad day, but it wasn't a championship killer. We're still in it and we've got a lot of tracks that are really good for us still to come."

Indeed, Hamlin is only eight points behind Johnson in the standings. And don't be surprised if he wins three of the last seven races -- Martinsville (where he won earlier this year); Texas (where he won earlier this year) and Homestead-Miami (where he won last year).

How will Hamlin do on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.? He's one of five drivers I'll be closely watching when the green flag flies:

1. Denny Hamlin

Fontana is another of the tracks at which Hamlin is merely gunning for a top-10 finish. In his last two starts at the two-mile flat track, Hamlin hasn't finished higher than 29th. Because Johnson typically runs so well in California (see below), this is a dangerous race for Hamlin. He can't afford to fall too far behind Johnson four races into the Chase, because J.J. has a history of pulling away from the field right around the midway point of the 10-race playoff.

2. Jimmie Johnson

Well, that didn't take long. Just two weeks after it looked like his title shot was in grave jeopardy after he finished 25th in the Chase opener in New Hampshire, Johnson has rebounded nicely and is back atop the standings. He won at Dover and finished second at Kansas.

Statistically, Fontana is Johnson's third-best track on the circuit. He has five career wins here and an average finish of 5.5. He's won three of the last four races in California, including the last two. If he doesn't win on Sunday, it would be considered a big upset, which is why -- for the third straight week -- I'm picking JJ to take the checkers.

But don't hand the championship to Johnson yet. I still think four drivers will be in contention for the title at the season-finale in Homestead: Johnson, Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, and Kurt Busch.

3. Jeff Gordon

Quietly, Gordon is still very much alive in the championships picture. At Kansas he led 29 laps and finished fifth -- a solid points day. So far in the Chase his lowest finish is 11th (at Dover) and he's tied for third with Carl Edwards for best average finish in the playoff (7.3). He trails Johnson by 58 points.

Like every other driver in the Chase field, Gordon simply needs to try to stay close to Johnson on Sunday. Gordon usually is fast in California. He has three wins in 20 starts and in February he appeared to have the fastest car in the field until he had an issue with a spark plug that dropped him to a 20th place finish.

If you watch Gordon closely -- and I did at Kansas -- you could make the argument that he's driving as well as he ever has, the way he sets up other drivers to make passes, the way he seems to control his car like it's attached to his body. Gordon hasn't won a race since April 2009, but I say that streak will end soon -- perhaps as early as Oct. 16 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

4. Carl Edwards

So far Edwards has been steady in the Chase. A week after coming in fifth at Dover, Edwards finished sixth in Kansas and is fourth in the standings. His best shot at winning the title will be to author top-10s the rest of the way, not go all-or-nothing for wins, and hope that Johnson and Hamlin slip up. Not the sexiest of strategies, but it could work for Edwards.

California has been good to Edwards in the past. In 12 career starts at the track he has 10 top-10 finishes, including one win. On Sunday he'll be driving the same chassis that he finished second with earlier this season at Atlanta, so clearly his car will have speed. Expect a top-5 run out of the No. 99 team on Sunday.

5. Kurt Busch

Busch is sixth in the standings, but I still think he's a threat to win it all. On Sunday he'll be driving chassis No. 736, which debuted two weeks ago at Dover when Busch finished fourth. Yet that result was deceiving. Busch was slapped with a pit road speeding penalty in the middle of the race. Flashing impressive speed and handling, Busch then drove through the field to come in fourth. If he had more time, he may have won.

On Sunday it says here he'll be Johnson's primary competition. Busch's Chase has been lackluster so far -- he has two 13th place finishes and an average finish of 10.0 -- but a win in Fontana would put him right back in the title mix. And remember: Johnson blatantly wrecked Busch at Pocono earlier this year. I know for a fact that Busch hasn't forgotten this. Payback is coming -- it's just a matter of when.