The Sprint Cup Series Title Contenders

On Sunday night the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship comes down to a 267 lap winner-take-all shoot out at Homestead-Miami. There are plenty of permutations that could decide who takes the title for any of the three contenders but the simple truth is that each man needs to race for the win. Anything less is fraught with potential pitfalls that could see the hapless driver leave Miami empty handed.

Denny Hamlin (Championship leader)

At Homestead last November Hamlin won the race but it was Jimmie Johnson who took his fourth title. After that race Hamlin just knew that he finally understood what it would take to win the championship. Always a man to say exactly what he is thinking – for better and for worse – he has talked his way through The Chase this year from when it started back at Loudon on September 19th.

He made it clear from the beginning that he would play the first five races cautiously, ensuring he got decent if not spectacular results. He boldly claimed that he would then have to win at race number six, Martinsville, go as fast as he dared – no more – for the lottery that is Talladega, then from Texas onwards would drive aggressively with wins firmly on his mind.

So what did he do? He got to the finish of the fifth race, Charlotte, in second place in the standings, just forty-one points behind the leader, Johnson. True to his word, he won at Martinsville, finished a safe ninth at Talladega, won again at Texas when the more aggressive driving kicked in, then he could – and should – have won at Phoenix where he had by far the fastest car out there. That he didn’t was down to his crew chief, Mike Ford, and poor fuel mileage but there is no question that Hamlin delivered all that he was asked to do that day. He was just asked to do the wrong thing in the race’s final stages.

During interviews last Sunday Hamlin was asked what the difference was in him or the car that he was so conservative in the first five races and yet fighting so strongly for the wins in the races since. Hamlin said, “I’m just pushing the gas pedal down harder.” He appeared to hesitate and seemed visibly to be searching for the next thing to say and then slowly you could see that he realised he had nothing else to add to that answer. It sounded like a flippant response but it really wasn’t. The fullest of answers was in those eight words.

If there is any doubt about Hamlin it would have to be where his head is after coming so close to extending his point lead only to watch it diminish significantly. If he can – as he said after last Sunday’s race – leave Phoenix in Phoenix – and keep that determined, calculating and measured head on then the title could well be his. It is for the other two contenders to catch and pass him – the status quo will be fine for Hamlin.

Today is his thirtieth birthday and he is just seventy-two hours or so away from achieving his lifetime dream. That would be some birthday present to himself.

Jimmie Johnson (-15 points)

Just a few words sum up Johnson’s position. Sprint Cup Series champion four consecutive times. Every title he can add to that consecutive list will be a new record and that is what motivates Johnson. He really wants that fifth title and being the best matters so much to him and his team led by chief Chad Knaus.

Last Sunday’s race is a perfect example of how they work together and trust each other implicitly. Knaus told Johnson he wanted him to drive the car using no more than half throttle, not braking for the bends and conserving fuel as much as possible. Sprint Cup cars are fitted with progressive carburettors, two fuel inlets opening to half throttle and the other two opening beyond that. Using that knowledge – and Johnson unquestioningly doing as instructed – got him to the finish line without a need for refuelling. And that made the difference between starting this Sunday’s race fifteen points behind instead of sixty plus.

Johnson’s greatest asset in his search for the title, though, has to be that he has been here before. He has never started the last race behind in the points, that’s true, but he has been in contention enough times to know how to deal with the stresses and strains of competition at this level.

A lot of seasoned observers point out that where Johnson has the slightly better crew chief, Hamlin has the better car and so it goes on when comparing the two. When all variables are stacked up there is really precious little between the two teams. With one exception. Jimmie Johnson. He isn’t a four times champion by luck or chance. He has that inner calm, the ability to know when to be told how to do it and the ability to know when it is up to him to step up to the plate and do what he does best.

Kevin Harvick (-46 points)

Forty-six points is a lot to make up. Where Hamlin needs to finish either first or second with most laps led, and Johnson needs to finish first with most laps led to be sure of taking the title, for Harvick he needs the other two to finish back down the order a bit too. If Hamlin is higher than fourth or Johnson higher than seventh then Harvick cannot be champion.

That makes it really simple for him. He has to drive to win and then see what happens to the other two. Anything less will be no use to him. All three drivers are saying that have to win but for the #29 it really is win or bust.

He ought to start the race in a good frame of mind. Richard Childress Racing took two previously raced cars plus a new one to the wind tunnel to compare and found the new car produced significantly better figures. And they also claim that the engine shop has produced the most powerful engine to date. Are they showboating or genuine? We’ll know on Sunday but if they are genuine then Harvick knows he has the tools to do the job and the rest is down to him.

According to ESPN analyst Marty Smith Harvick has spent some of this week playing golf – his prefered way to relax – and the whole team arrived in Florida early to do some fishing and team bonding at Key West. If the pressure is getting to Harvick as he chases his first ever title then he is hiding it well. 

It must be frustrating for Harvick to know that with the point system used in the modern era of NASCAR racing – post 1975 – but before the advent of The Chase, when the winner was the man who scored most points over a season Harvick would have been declared champion last Sunday with 5109 points to Johnson’s 4814 and Hamlin in third with 4744, assuming my maths is right!

We will know on Sunday evening who had the fastest car, the strongest strategy, the best frame of mind and, very significantly, the better luck. Whoever wins will most definitely have earned it across the season, that’s for sure.