NASCAR can be a cruel sport. There was Denny Hamlin last Sunday afternoon at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, passing one car after the next with startling ease, motoring up through the field as if he had a perfectly balanced, perfectly tuned racecar, which he very nearly did.
To maintain his title hopes Hamlin, who at the time was third in the standings and 25 points out of first place, needed to win at Martinsville. Though he had been busted twice for speeding on pit road early in the race, he clearly had the fastest car on the racetrack as the laps began to wind down. Then, in a heartbeat, disaster struck: With just over 100 laps to go -- and with Hamlin in third place and gaining on the leaders -- the gauges on his dashboard began flashing all sorts of colors. Before he knew what was really happening, a bolt on the master switch on Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota broke. On a car that took millions of dollars to put together, the piece of hardware that failed cost about $40.
Hamlin slowed and then puttered into the garage for an extensive repair. He wound up 33rd and is now fifth in the standings, 49 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson -- a deficit that Hamlin won't be able make up with only three races left in the season. "One of these days it's going to be our time," Hamlin said. "It's just not right now."
Yes, NASCAR can be a cruel sport, and Hamlin knows that well. In 2010 Hamlin entered the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the points lead, but then became the first driver in Chase history to not capture the championship when holding that position after Jimmie Johnson passed him on the track at Homestead and stole the Cup. Later that night Hamlin vowed that he would be back and one day win a title.
But he hasn't lived up to that promise quite yet. Last year he finished ninth in the standings and now, after winning five races in 2012, we can start preparing the obituary on his season.
But I do think Hamlin will author one more memorable moment this season that will need to be included in the obit. This weekend the Cup circuit heads to Texas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile track where Hamlin has won two of the last five races. This is character-challenging race for the No. 11 team -- do they simply go through the motions and run mid-pack or do they show up with a we'll-show-the-garage-what-we're-made-of edge? My guess is this: Hamlin and his crew chief Darian Grubb will take their sixth checkered flag of the season and momentarily seize the spotlight from the final two championship contenders, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.
"It's a shame we can't be part of [the championship battle]," Hamlin said. "But we're going to try to work our way as far up in the points as we possibly can and just keep digging."
With nothing to lose in the Lone Star State, Hamlin can take chances on the track that Johnson and Keselowski can't and Grubb can roll the dice on pit strategy. This will make the No. 11 team a dangerous team on Sunday.
Here are four other drivers to watch when the green flag drops:
1. Jimmie Johnson
With his win last weekend at Martinsville -- his first Chase victory of 2011 -- Johnson once again is in a familiar spot: at the top of the standings, holding a two-point advantage over Keselowski. This is the first time in the playoffs that Johnson, a five-time Cup champion, has been in lead and now Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus head to one of their best tracks. After seven Chase races, a 'can-this-really-be-happening-again?' feeling has gripped the garage.
In his last seven starts at Texas, Johnson has finished second three times and in the spring he led a race-high 156 laps before being passed late by Greg Biffle to come in second. What makes Johnson so good here? Texas, like many of the 1.5-mile tracks on the schedule, has multiple racing grooves, and Johnson excels at feeling out the track to find the quickest line around the oval. Expect a top-three run out of the No. 48 team on Sunday.
2. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski saved his season at Martinsville. After qualifying 32nd -- and Keselowski has struggled in qualifying during the entire Chase, which, if this trend continues, could be a deciding factor in the championship -- Keselowski calmly worked his way through the field and finished sixth. This was a moral victory for the No. 2 team, because Martinsville was arguably Keselowski's worst track in the playoffs.
Yet Keselowski hasn't exactly flourished in the past at Texas either; in eight starts his average finish is 25.2. But this season career averages haven't been harbingers for Keselowski, who seemingly every week is running far better than ever has in his pervious trips to the different Chase tracks.
Texas has similar characteristics to Chicagoland Speedway, another 1.5-mile track where Keselowski won the Chase opener in September. Right now this is a confident, fast race team, full of swagger. Keselowski and his crew chief Paul Wolfe have taken more gambles during the playoffs than every other team -- pitting out of sequence, stretching their fuel mileage, staying out during cautions when virtually everyone else pits -- and so far all of their daring moves have paid dividends.
Can they keep it going at Texas? I think they can. They won't finish higher than Johnson and Knaus on Sunday, but it says here Keselowski and Wolfe will be squarely in the rear-view mirror of the No. 48 Chevy as the laps wind down. Keselowski has repeatedly said that he firmly believes the championship won't be decided until the final miles of the season at Homestead, and based on how well the No. 2 is currently performing, it's hard to disagree with that assessment.
3. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer has been the biggest surprise of the fall. Though his team, Michael Waltrip Racing, has never been a factor in the championship in its five years as a fulltime Sprint Cup operation, Bowyer has consistently raced with the leaders in the first seven playoffs events. He has one win, he's led laps in six of the seven races, he has six top 10 finishes, and he's now in third place in the standings, trailing Johnson by 26 points.
In his last four starts at Texas, Bowyer has three top-10s. The only way he has a shot at being in title contention at Homestead is if both Johnson and Keselowski get caught up in wrecks in these next two races or have mechanical problems. That's unlikely to happen, but if it does, Bowyer is the one driver that is poised to pounce.
4. Greg Biffle
Biffle's had a disappointing Chase. After holding the points lead for three weeks this summer during the regular season, Biffle only has three top-10 finishes in the playoffs and is currently ninth in the standings. So why should he be a threat to win on Sunday? Because Texas is one of his favorite tracks. He's reeled off four straight top-five finishes here, including taking the checkered flag in April.
So look for Biffle to be running side-by-side with the likes of Hamlin, Johnson and Keselowski late on Sunday afternoon. Hamlin is the pick here, but my hunch is that, once the engines are turned off at Texas, the larger race for the championship will remain a virtual dead heat between Johnson and Keselowski.