With five races left in the season, the time is now. Hamlin trails Johnson by 41 points, but the Sprint Cup circuit stops Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, which is one of Hamlin's best tracks. He won there in the spring on the strength of a daring charge from fourth to first over the final two laps -- two laps that have been among the most compelling of the entire season -- and he should be formidable again Sunday. "There's something about Martinsville that I just love," Hamlin says. "It suits me well"
NASCAR's oldest track (built in 1947) and shortest (.526 of a mile), Martinsville has been kind to the 29-year-old Hamlin. He has three career wins there and an average finish of 6.6, which makes Martinsville, statistically, his best track in the Chase. So what if Hamlin doesn't make up ground to Johnson in the points on Sunday? Should Hamlin start fretting? Will all of his long-designed plans go awry? Well, in a word, yes.
But I don't think that will happen. My tarot cards say Hamlin, who last season scored more points in the final five races in the Chase than any other driver, will earn his first victory of the 2010 playoffs at the paper-clip shaped track. He's been performing at a high level recently -- his fourth-place finish at Charlotte last Saturday night was a career best at the track -- and it appears he's poised to peak at the perfect time.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the engines rev on Sunday afternoon in the rolling hills of southern Virginia:
1. Jimmie Johnson -- Like Hamlin, Johnson excels at Martinsville. In fact, the two drivers have combined to win the last eight races at the track, with Johnson taking five of the checkered flags. But Johnson was relatively average there in the spring, which was the first race of the season in which the rear spoiler replaced the wing. Hamlin was able to adapt to the spoiler quicker than Johnson -- which essentially explains how Hamlin was able to win more races (six to five) than the defending champ in the regular season -- but the No. 48 team bridged that gap over the summer.
Barring a mechanical failure or getting caught up in accident, Johnson and Hamlin should be in the lead pack as the laps wind down Sunday. Johnson, after all, hasn't finished outside of the top 10 in 16 straight starts at Martinsville. Look for him to be far faster at the track than he was in the spring.
2. Kevin Harvick -- Harvick genuinely believes he's still in the championship hunt. Currently third in the standings, Harvick trails Johnson by 77 points. This certainly isn't an insurmountable lead, but given that Johnson and Hamlin both excel on all of the five remaining tracks, it will be a tall order for Harvick to have a real shot at the title in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month.
Harvick's team, Richard Childress Racing, was impressive at Martinsville in the spring. In fact, many in the garage will tell you this was the team to beat in March. But Harvick has never flashed much speed at this short track. In 18 career starts, he's never finished in the top-5 at Martinsville and his average finish is a pedestrian 18.1. His best hope for a good points day may be for both Hamlin and Johnson to suffer bad luck.
3. Jeff Gordon -- For a moment, it looked like Gordon was going to end his winless streak at Charlotte last Saturday night. He started on the pole, led some laps, appeared to have a car capable of contending, but then had an electrical problem. He dropped a lap down (which he eventually got back) and finished 23rd. With that, his winless streak extended to 60 races and his hopes of winning a fifth Cup title were essentially dashed. He now trails Johnson by 156 points.
But it will be an upset if Gordon isn't very, very fast on Sunday. In what, to me, is one of the most impressive statistics I've seen about Martinsville, Gordon has authored 11 straight top-5 finishes at the track. Put simply, he's a Martinsville expert.
4. Kyle Busch -- The up-and-down season of Busch continued at Charlotte. A week after finishing 35th at Fontana, Busch came in second Saturday and rose to fifth in the standings. He won't win the championship this year, but no one in the garage would be surprised if he wins as many as two of the final five races.
Will it happen on Sunday? Well, he came in fourth in this event last year. Then again, predicting how Busch will finish a race is risky business. No driver in the sport -- indeed, no driver in recent memory -- is as eminently capable of winning or wrecking on any given Sunday as the enigmatic Busch.