Ah, the angst! You would think by the way some are writing it up, Denny Hamlin’s done for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, and the trophy engravers are already at work on preparing Jimmie Johnson’s fifth title in as many years.
Not so fast! A good argument, no, several good arguments can be made that Johnson’s “Drive For Five” has hit debris. Consider…
It’s still Denny’s lead to lose. Yes, a 15 point is not a 58 point lead, and it’s not even a 33-point-lead, but it’s still a lead. In order to win the title, Johnson and third place Kevin Harvick still have to catch Hamlin, and that will be no small order. Why?
On the whole, Hamlin has been superior. Let’s not forget who picked off drivers like fish in a barrel Sunday, before the Kobalt Tools 500 became a fuel mileage affair. In fact, you throw out the fluky finish at Talladega, and Hamlin has been consistently better than his challengers. Over the last ten races, Hamlin has an average finish of 5.9, better than Johnson’s 6.3, or Harvick’s 6.4. Harvick leaps past Hamlin over the last five races, but DH is still better than Johnson, and Hamlin has a 46 point advantage over the third place challenger.
That lead Hamlin has over Harvick has to do with another reason he has the edge: to win the Chase, you must have wins in the Chase. While he’s had a bobble or two, Hamlin has made up the difference by closing the deal. Harvick has not won in the Chase, Johnson has a single win at Dover, while Hamlin has won twice, and could very conceivably win a third this Sunday.
Why? Hamlin has the Homestead advantage. While Harvick has a slightly better average finish at Homestead (9.9 to 10.6), Hamlin has accomplished what Happy has not- win a race at the Florida track. Care to guess which Chase track Jimmie has never won at? Ding, ding, ding! If you said Homestead-Miami, you’re a winner! Hamlin comes in as the defending Homestead race champion.
Granted, it’s not hard to understand why fans and talking heads are jumping on the Jimmie Johnson bandwagon after the events at Phoenix. The defending champion is crowing like Foghorn Leghorn and Hamlin looks lower than the price of turkey the day after Thanksgiving. There’s the question of the hour: can Denny Hamlin do what many of the greats do under pressure, develop a short memory, and leave Phoenix in Phoenix? So far this season, the young veteran for Joe Gibbs Racing has shown the ability to bounce back. Now, he just needs to do it one more time.
I wouldn’t bet against it. It’s been one historic Chase so far, and it just may be possible that the kid from Virginia is etching his name into a piece of it.