Hamlin, Not Harvick Made Martinsville Worth The Watch (Clock)

Hamlin watched the clock long enough he deserved to win it.

Hamlin watched the clock long enough he deserved to win it.

It looked for all the world as if Kevin Harvick was going to hold court again at Martinsville this past weekend, but Denny Hamlin and an ever changing racetrack denied him that. Denny Hamlin fought like hell and deserved the win for himself and JGR.

During the early stages of the race Kevin Harvick kept moving in and out of place within the top ten and, mostly, top five to position himself for that last 20 laps of mayhem. He is “The Closer” after all. However the race track temperatures changed throughout the day and so did the strategies of the teams.Early in the race the top groove on the famous half-mile track refused to cooperate and ‘come-in’. In other words be drivable. It was too cool and not enough rubber had been laid down. As a result it was a dogfight to hold position until that set of circumstances presented itself.

Early in the race the top groove on the famous half-mile track refused to cooperate and ‘come-in’. In other words be drivable. It was too cool and not enough rubber had been laid down. As a result it was a dogfight to hold position until that set of circumstances presented itself.

Martinsville: Not the track of brotherly love.

Martinsville: Not the track of brotherly love.

Midway through the swirling event the rubber finally had come into play and the passing began, but it wasn’t going to last.

For a solid third, if not more,  the top groove of the track submitted to the rubber and was a perfect passing zone where Harvick, Gordon and Hamlin could move around with impunity. However, after what seemed like a million neck twisting turns the track turned on them. 

The cool temperature had taken the rubber and balled it up into little chunks as opposed to setting it into the track. On a warmer day the rubber would have ‘married’ the track and given it grip, instead it did just the opposite causing the drivers to slowly move back down into the lower groove.

What happened then? You guessed it, the “Rubbin is Racin, the Chrome Horn or Bump and Run” came into play, so did tire strategy that helped those towards the rear such as Tony Stewart.

Hamlin almost didn’t get a shot at it due to a pit road speeding penalty he received, if it had come any later it would have played out very differently. A similar penalty later on ruined Jeff Gordon’s day.

On the last tire change everyone set up for the final 20 laps and Harvick made an uncharacteristic mistake, he moved to the outside to affect a pass and got shuffled to the middle of the field. When you try to drive in the marbles you simply can’t steer the car. No one was dumb enough to let him back in.

In the meantime at the front Brad Keselowski had methodically moved up into position and began to work on Hamlin. It didn’t look as if he would catch him, but you wouldn’t know that from watching Hamlin’s in-car camera. He was looking in the rear view mirror more than Paris Hilton before a date.

Once Keselowski sets his sights on you he’s going to get there come hell or high water and he did, on the last lap. It was actually epic thinking that Brad was going to put the bumper to him, wreck him and win, but he didn’t, wreck him that is.

He did manage to get to Hamlin’s right rear quarter panel coming to the flag and move the Toyota around a bit, but Hamlin went to take the checkered flag and gurantee himself a spot in the chase. 

He has Brad Keselowski to thank for that and he did. He knew BK could have crashed him, but Keselowski knew his chase berth is all but set and decided the points were worth more.

It was a great race and a good call by Keselowski and a deserved win for Denny Hamlin who fought for it right up to the last corner of the last lap.

Dissing Hamlin Over a Caution Finish at Talladega Unfair

Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin

I, unlike countless sports writers and fans, am not a proponent of the green/white checker finishes that NASCAR implemented many moons ago in order to give the fans a show at the race finish.

After decades of having auto races legitimately end under a caution, NASCAR seemingly had no choice but to try something to re-engage its fan base. 

Has the GWC actually done that? Perhaps the fans are a little happier for it, but it’s not fair to the drivers who have fought all day long to get into that 1st position only to have it snatched for debris or for crashes on the penultimate lap.

It’s truly a sports version of a Catch-22. NASCAR was losing viewership for a myriad of reasons, most beyond their control, some completely their own doing. The COT comes to mind like walking into your bed room and finding Dracula hanging upside down.

Despite my disdain for that era, at least we’re now at the Gen 6 stage and better racing. Let’s face it, GWC or not, we have had 9 different winners in 10 races. On the surface that seems to be a winning combination.

In reality it’s creating a circus-like atmosphere out of what should be a normal procedure. If the caution flies on the next to last lap and they can’t clean it up, it should finish under caution. The drivers know where they are on that lap and have prepared for the likely or unlikely outcome. 

NASCAR isn’t alone in tweaking rules in order to spice up the show. Formula One has more viewers running from it than Chernobyl. Sound modifiers to make the new cars louder, creating cars with technology for the manufacturers to crow about and Draconian rules when it comes to passing. The fans aren’t so enamored. They’ve created a series with rules that make the EPA regulations look tame.

Jean Todt, President of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).

Jean Todt, President of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).

One question that’s been circulating this week is: “Does Denny Hamlin have what it takes to win a championship?” Of course he does. He’s not had the best luck when it comes to his physical condition, but mentally this is a tough guy and a highly skilled driver.

Hamlin was leading when the flag caution flag flew and that’s that. He wins.

The show that NASCAR had at one time, in terms of attendance and viewership, didn’t have these rules. In spite of that, the sport emerged at exactly the right time to move into the ‘Sports Darling’ category. It kept growing for a time. Those days are gone.

The social media movement, mobile devices, life in 140 characters, competing against other leisure time activities, the economy, you name it, they’ve had to face it, all the while the viewership kept creeping downward. I understand what they’re doing, but why?

Changing the points system around is one thing, but changing the way races are conducted with reference to finishes is taking a step towards ‘Professional Wrestling’. Pencil me in a new rule boys.

If you are in the lead when an untenable accident occurs with one lap to go, let it finish the way it was intended, under the caution. 

The winning driver deserves it.

 

 

Back On Track, Hamlin Aims To Prove He’s No ‘Weak Link’

Denny Hamlin was injured early in the 2013 season and missed four races. But he returned to racing and won at Homestead in the final event of the year.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When a driver misses part of a NASCAR Sprint Cup season due to injury or illness, when the next year rolls around and he’s healthy, he has one of two things to prove:

First, he intends to prove he’s back in competitive form and hopes to win races.

Second, he’s determined to show he’s fit as a fiddle and can withstand the physical rigors of racing.

Let’s be honest. The returning driver counts BOTH as his season goals. Can’t achieve one without the other.

Much has been said and speculated about Tony Stewart’s return to competition after he suffered a shattered right leg in a Sprint Car race midway through last season.

Now consider Denny Hamlin, driver of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

In 2013 Hamlin was 10th in points and measured up for the Chase for the Sprint Cup when he crashed at Auto Club Speedway in March. Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his back.

If you have ever experienced back pain, you know a bit of what Hamlin was enduring.

Hamlin missed four races and fell to 28th in points. His hopes of making the Chase were over.

He had to take on a relief driver in his first race since his injury, at Talladega.

But the following week at Darlington he drove the entire race and finished second. Hamlin wasn’t fully cured but he was strong enough to race – if not as comfortably as he would have liked.

Hamlin has driven for Joe Gibbs Racing since 2006 and has earned 23 victories. His goals are to win again and make the Chase.

Hamlin won his only race of 2013 at the season’s last race at Homestead-Miami.

He ended the year on a very high note.

And he’s started 2014 on another high note. Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited on Feb. 15. He was No. 1 in NASCAR’s first on-track competition of the year.

“It was great to win,” Hamlin said. “And it’s good for the drivers who are part of the Unlimited to get the race rust off.

“We only do superspeedway racing four to five times a year so it is an art form of racing that the more you do it the better you’ll become at it.

“So I think it is a big advantage for us in the Unlimited being able to get a race under our belts before the 500, which is our biggest race.  It’s hard to go into the 500 cold turkey with no race experience the week before.”

With his 28th-place finish in points last year, compared to second for teammate Matt Kenseth and fourth for Kyle Busch, it would appear to be easy to call the driver from Chesterfield, Va., the “weak link” at Gibbs.

Hamlin thinks that would be wrong.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “At least not through the testing that I’ve seen. I’m up to speed, to say the least, within our race team.”

Hamlin does admit he might have a difficult go of it early in the season – and for reasons you might not ever suspect.

“Last year we were a little bit off of our teammates and we’re going to have a little bit of a struggle at the beginning of the year,” Hamlin said. “That’s because ultimately we have a bad parking spot in the garage and we’re going to miss the first 10 minutes of practice every week.

“Yes, you’re still going to be parked in the garage.  Not the haulers, but the cars.  We were so far back in points we would miss the first 10 minutes of practice every single week.

“So, until we get ourselves back up in points where we should be I think the first few races will be tough for us. Other than that I think we’ll be fine.

“I think we’re going to start as strong as JGR starts.”

Hamlin, who has won 23 races in his career – all with Gibbs – said he took something positive away from his experience last year. Namely, a driver just can’t rely on being competitive every season. Anything can happen.

“Last season was a dead one in a lot of ways,” Hamlin said. “What I take from it the most would be just the appreciation of when you do run well.

“I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year.  Just like it was easy and I really didn’t have to prepare for it.  I just showed up and we did it.

“And now, I think with the competition and how we ran at the end of last year, you’ve got to think about preparing for more weeks and preparing to be good.  You can’t just rely on talent to do it.”

Asked if Stewart faced tougher challenges than he in 2014, Hamlin laughingly said:

“I think Tony has less challenges because he’s more talented.”

Of course, that is a matter of opinion.

—- Hamlin continued to make it very clear he’s fully returned – and is no Gibbs “weak link” – with his victory in a Budweiser Duel qualifying race on Feb. 20. Hamlin took the lead after pit stops midway through the 60-lap race and was never challenged. Impressively, he has now won two of two races at Daytona.

 

Hamlin Wins As Six-Time Champ Jimmie Johnson’s Legacy Grows

Denny Hamlin won at Homestead-Miami to earn his first victory of the year and keep alive his streak of at least one win in each of his eight full NASCAR seasons.

Perhaps the Ford EcoBoost 400, the final race of the 2013 NASCAR Winston Cup season, ended the way it should have – with more than one compelling story.

—- After 400 miles of racing, Jimmie Johnson won his sixth career championship. The Hendrick Motorsports driver now has just one less title than Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, the sport’s titans.

—- When the green flag fell at Homestead-Miami Speedway, all Johnson was 28 points ahead of challenger Matt Kenseth and had only to finish 23rd or better to lock up the title.

Kenseth had a remarkable race, one in which he did all that was humanly possible to wrest the championship out of Johnson’s hands.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led 144 laps, twice as many as any other competitor, and finished second. Had any misfortune struck Johnson – which, admittedly, was not likely – Kenseth would be the 2013 champ.

—- A back injury that forced Denny Hamlin to miss four races earlier this year all but obliterated his chances to make the Chase, much less win a championship.

But Hamlin resuscitated his season with a victory at Homestead, his first of the year and the 23rd of his career.

Hamlin, Kenseth’s teammate at Gibbs, has now won at least once in each of his eight full Sprint Cup seasons.

—- Johnson finished ninth at Homestead to win the title by 19 points over Kenseth and 34 over Kevin Harvick, the only other driver with at least a mathematical chance at the championship, who finished 10th.

Johnson won his sixth title at age 38. Petty was also 38 and Earnhardt was 42.

It is abundantly clear Johnson will have the opportunity to win a seventh title and maybe more. Petty said he wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson won eight to 10 titles.

Matt Kenseth, who won the pole, gave it his all to overtake Johnson in the point standings by leading 144 laps and finishing second. However, it wasn’t enough.

Despite the fact that Johnson isn’t the most popular driver in NASCAR, the inarguable fact is that he is one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.

Five of his six championships were won in succession from 2006-2010, which easily eclipsed Cale Yarborough’s three in a row from 1976-1978 and stood as the NASCAR record until Johnson’s singular achievement.

His six victories this season were second only to Kenseth’s seven. Johnson now has 66 career wins, which puts him in eighth place on NASCAR’s all-time list.

Johnson has never been one to blow his own horn. But he does realize the future will offer him opportunities to embellish his own legacy.

“I look forward to the opportunity,” Johnson said. “I hope that I can certainly accomplish more.

“I feel like this team is capable of a lot of great things.  There are still great years out ahead of us.  But all of that is in the future, a seventh, an eighth.  Richard said eight to ten.  That’s all ahead of us.

“I don’t want to focus on that yet.  It’s not time.  I want to unplug, enjoy the sixth, and let it soak in.  We’ll get to Daytona for testing soon enough.  I guess by then it’s probably appropriate to ask the question.”

And Johnson also realizes what has been said, and written, about him by his peers and the media.

“I’m humbled by the nice things that have been said by competitors and owners, my peers in this industry,” Johnson said. “I think their opinion is very important.  I don’t think my opinion matters.  It’s not for the athlete, the driver.  It’s bestowed upon you; it’s passed down from others.

“If others are saying it, I’m not going to deny it, chase it away.  Sure, I would love to be considered the greatest driver.

“But if you look at stats, there’s still numbers out there that I need to achieve.  That’s why I say that until I hang my helmet up, it’s not necessarily a fair conversation to have.

“I’m honored to be in the conversation and I know I will have to face it, especially being this close to seven and having a shot to tie those guys.”

—- Kenseth, the 2003 champion, had been this year’s points leader for six of the Chase’s first eight races but lost it following Martinsville.

He was still in striking distance until Phoenix, where he had his worst showing in the Chase. He finished 23rd to give Johnson the 28-point pad he had going into Homestead.

It was too much for Kenseth to overcome – but not because he didn’t try hard.

Second place and 144 laps led clearly indicate Kenseth, in his first season with Gibbs, made a strong run to win the title.

“We had a good night – we were really dominant when the sun was out,” he said. “We struggled a little bit when it went down and a lot of that will lay on the driver who was probably a little reluctant to get up in the groove where I needed to run to make any speed.

“It was just an unbelievable year for us really.  Obviously, we wanted to finish off and win the championship as good as we ran all year, but I couldn’t be more proud of the whole team.

“They did a spectacular job all season and all day today again.”

—- Hamlin’s victory meant a one-two finish for Gibbs. More important, it provided momentum for Hamlin, who said he and his team need to boost their efforts for 2014.

“This just just gives us huge momentum,” Hamlin said. “We started kicking things into gear about two months ago and then last week (Phoenix) with a horrific effort that kind of gets your spirits down.

“But then, to come here to Miami and back it up with a win, well, this is something we can think about for the entire winter.”

Indeed, Hamlin and Kenseth have momentum and look forward to better things in 2014.

But so does Jimmie Johnson, who may well enhance his legacy in seasons to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Now The Evidence, And Numbers, Favor Johnson

This might not sit well with everyone, especially those who want to see someone new become the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion at last, but according to the numbers, Jimmie Johnson is in a very good position to win his sixth consecutive championship.

This can be said even after his relatively slow start in the first two races of the Chase. He finished a respectable 10th at Chicago but an uncharacteristically mediocre 18th at New Hampshire, after which he ranked 10th in points, 29 behind leader Tony Stewart.

With eight races remaining Johnson’s deficit would not be difficult to erase – although more than a few observers suggested it would and even ruled the Hendrick Motorsports driver virtually out of contention.

He came roaring back with a runnerup finish at Dover and now stands fifth in points, only 13 behind new leader Kevin Harvick.

Johnson needled the doubters among the media – “Hey, last week I was considered done,” he said – and I believe he also made believers out of a few skeptics.

If we go by Johnson’s past record in the Chase he’s got his rivals right where he wants ‘em.

The driver from El Cajon, Calif., has displayed remarkable consistency in the Chase, more so than any other driver.

And I don’t care how many times a points system is altered and what bonuses are applied, consistency will always win championships – always.

Here are the numbers that give Johnson his edge.

Last year he started the Chase second by 10 points to leader Denny Hamlin in the re-seeded standings. Hamlin won at Richmond, the last race before the “playoffs,” for his sixth victory of the season, one more than Johnson.

Johnson stumbled in the first race of the Chase at New Hampshire, where he finished 25th and dropped to seventh in points. Hamlin, the runnerup, held the lead.

Then Johnson won the second race of the Chase, at Dover, and Hamlin finished ninth. Johnson rose to second in points.

Johnson thus recovered from a slow start. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

It got better. He finished second at Kansas, the third race, and moved into first place in the standings after Hamlin wound up ninth in the race.

In 2011, Johnson may not have moved to the top of the heap – yet – but he’s clearly established that he and his team have the ability to do so, and in short order.

Here are the most important statistics from last year that make Johnson an odds-on title favorite.

After he rose to first in points following three races, Johnson never finished out of the top 10 in the final seven races of the 2010 season. In fact, he finished five times among the top five.

He had more consistent performances than any other driver – and he needed all of them.

That’s because Hamlin was Johnson’s equal in consistency for much of the remainder of the Chase. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver also won twice.

He won first at Martinsville, where he closed to within six points of Johnson, and then again at Texas, where he moved atop the standings with just two races remaining.

Hamlin then lost his consistency, and the title, largely through no fault of his own. He was a victim of the misfortunes that are always a part of racing.

He was 12th at Phoenix where Johnson was second. Hamlin was 15 points in front going into the last race of the season at Homestead.

There, Hamlin finished 14th while Johnson took the runnerup spot and won the title by 39 points.

It’s been suggested that Hamlin, who has won only once in 2011, barely made the Chase and has already been eliminated from championship contention, really never recovered.

I’m only suggesting that in 2010, Johnson started the Chase slowly, quickly overcame a point deficit and established himself as the man to beat.

That year he finished among the top 10 in nine of the Chase races, which includes seven top-five runs, one a victory.

Now consider that this year Johnson has earned two top-10 finishes, one among the top five, in the first three races.

See the pattern?

In doing what he has so far, Johnson has again made up a point deficit and, again, has come to the forefront as a title contender.

Obviously no one can say that he’s “out of it.”

I understand fully that what was the past doesn’t mean it will be the same in the future.

After three races the Chase scenario is far different from what it was in 2010. There are nine drivers within a mere 19 points of each other in the standings. That means we have one of the closest title contests in “playoff” history.

Under the right circumstances it won’t take much for things to change quickly. Johnson has already shown us that a driver can make up a huge portion of a 29-point deficit in a single race.

So has Dover winner Kurt Busch, who rose from ninth to fourth in points. He was once 28 points down and now the difference is only nine.

It’s certainly possible that, over the last seven races, Johnson won’t experience the consistency he did last year.

Heck, he and his team could fall flat on their faces. All it takes is a wreck here, a mechanical failure there and an empty gas tank over yonder.

And we could see another organization pile up a series of good finishes, tossing in a victory or two, to compile a record of consistency that supplants Johnson.

But numbers and evidence suggest that Johnson has already done what he needed to return to serious contention and that he won’t fade as the season closes.

Play the odds and, right now, Johnson has to be the favorite.

If nothing else, it should be fascinating to see what happens over the final seven races of the year, and how it ultimately all plays out.

Format Provides Plenty Of Intrigue As Chase Start Nears

With four races remaining until the Chase begins – following the Richmond race on Sept. 10 – it’s not unusual that fans hear, read and see plenty of news about the drivers who are still fighting for entry into the exclusive 12-car field.

After all, several different scenarios exist and the questions over the next month will be, which one of them, or one as yet unknown, will be a reality and which drivers will be pleased – or disappointed?

Don’t think for a moment the competitors who are not yet in the Chase aren’t thinking about what they have to do to make it.

For a few of them it’s a matter of consistent performances over the next four races. The higher the finish, the better – and, oh yeah, a win would be great but it’s not really necessary to become one of the 12 drivers who will make the Chase.

For others, a victory is paramount. Can’t worry about points – to do so would be a waste of time. The only way to make up lost ground is to win.

The field for the Chase this year will be made up of the drivers in the top 10 in points after the Richmond race.

The 12-competitor lineup will be completed by two “wildcard” entries – those drivers with the most victories who are ranked among the top 20.

This “wildcard” business has been most intriguing. It has received constant attention from the media and, I daresay, the fans.

It’s NASCAR’s newest wrinkle in its oft-altered point system and it’s been a good one in the sense that it has, at the very least, provided some interest.

Let’s be honest here. If there was no “wildcard” and victories didn’t count for something, would anyone presently pay the slightest bit of attention to, say, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose or David Ragan?

In the past, believe me, these guys would have been ignored simply because they stood no chance of making NASCAR’s “playoff” under the point systems then utilized. They wouldn’t be given a second thought.

This year, however small their opportunities may be, they are parts of discussions and speculation. As we head into Michigan for this weekend’s Pure Michigan 400 Sprint Cup race, they’re not out of the hunt.

The reason? It ain’t so much about points as it is winning.

Menard is 14th in points with a single victory. Ambrose is 22nd and won for the first time in his career at Watkins Glen. Ragan is 23rd with a win at Daytona in July. He’s tumbled a bit since then and has fallen from a relatively comfortable Chase contender status.

All three of these guys could improve their points position – Ambrose, for example, is just one point out of 20th and Ragan is five in arrears – but it’s highly unlikely that alone is going to cut it.

But another win could make all the difference.

Currently, Brad Keselowski is the “wildcard” leader. He’s 14th in points, but is the only driver among the top 20 with two victories this season.

If Menard, 15th in points, wins again he could join Keselowski in the Chase field. So could Ambrose or Ragan because another victory would very likely push either into the top 20.

Denny Hamlin is, presently, next in line to make the Chase as a “wildcard,” behind Keselowski. Hamlin stands 12th in points with one victory.

For the Joe Gibbs Racing driver the season has been decidedly different than last year. He won at Michigan in June 2010 and finished second when the circuit returned to MIS in August.

He then won at Richmond for his sixth victory of the year and thus was No. 1 in the seeded standings when the Chase began.

Hamlin’s lone win of this season came at, yep, Michigan in June. He will likely be a strong favorite this weekend as he has an impeccable record at the two-mile track.

He has two wins and a runnerup finish in his last three MIS races with five straight top-10s and an average finish of 3.4.

Hamlin could use at least another top-five finish to keep his Chase hopes alive. He’s been in a three-race slump (he was 36th last week at the Glen after a frightening crash) and needs a solid performance.

Hamlin trails the trio of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer, who rank ninth-11th in points, respectively.

Hamlin, however, has an advantage. He’s got the “insurance policy” of a victory. The others are winless – so far.

Earnhardt Jr., trying to make the Chase for the first time since 2008, appears, to some, to be safe. He’s 36 points ahead of Bowyer, the Richard Childress Racing driver who would have to make up more than nine points in each remaining race to catch Earnhardt Jr.

Well, yeah, but what if Bowyer or Stewart wins and Earnhardt Jr. slumps? Beyond that, what if … well, there are a heckuva lot of “what ifs.”

There are several scenarios that could play out over the next four races. In fact, there are so many that involve the contending drivers (not to mention those who could quickly and unexpectedly join them) that to list them all would be, frankly, impossible.

To me, that’s the beauty of the system and its “wildcard” opportunities for drivers who win and are consistent enough to be among the top 20.

How it’s all going to end before the Chase starts is a mystery. And, to be honest, that’s something we didn’t have much of in years past.

One thing is certain: We can expect a lot more news and speculation about the potential Chase lineup over the next handful of weeks.

Who Can Knock Off Johnson? Here (Gulp!) Are A Few

One of the hot topics in NASCAR right about know poses the question, is there a driver who can knock Jimmie Johnson off the pedestal?

In 2011 is Johnson destined to reign as Sprint Cup champion for a sixth consecutive time or will another competitor finally snatch the title away?

Believe me the media has asked that question plenty of times already.
And in their prognostications – which are routine as a new season looms, by the way – they have suggested several candidates.

Allow me to join the fray.
First, it would seem pretty easy to say that Johnson can’t win a sixth straight championship. The odds are too great and the competition will be too stiff. Every team likely has one major goal in 2011 and that is to surpass Johnson if at all possible.

That won’t be easy. The odds were great that Johnson couldn’t win three consecutive titles – no to mention four or five. But he and his Hendrick Motorsports team beat those odds with a near-perfect combination of resources, talent, determination and, yes, luck.

The team is intact for 2011 – hasn’t lost a thing – and is blessed with abundant knowledge and experience. It certainly knows how to win a title. To supplant Johnson as the champion will be a formidable task for any driver.

That’s not to say there aren’t drivers, and teams, up to it. There are.

The pundits have said, mostly, that the driver that could get the best of Johnson in 2011 will come from one of three teams – Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.
That’s really sticking a neck out, isn’t it?
Hey, don’t look for me to do that here.
It’s just too hard to go against logic. After all, three of Johnson’s closest competitors in 2010, two of whom had chances to beat him going into the final race of the season at Homestead, competed for the aforementioned teams.

JGR’s Denny Hamlin seemed to have a firm grip on the title as the season wound to a close. After his win at Texas, his eighth of the year, he held the points lead by 33 over Johnson with two races to go.

But at Phoenix Hamlin had to make a late pit stop for a splash of fuel. Johnson nursed his gas consumption to earn a fifth-place finish. Hamlin drifted to 12th place and was clearly frustrated as his points lead shrunk to 15.

Hamlin bounced off another car at Homestead, finished 14th and lost the title by 39 points to Johnson, who finished in second place.

Hamlin might have been discouraged to have lost a championship over the last two races of 2010, but logic dictates that he and his Gibbs team learned a great deal.

There’s an old saying in racing that states to win a championship you must first lose one. What happens, it’s said, is that by losing a team still gains championship experience – and should be well-motivated to do even better in the coming season.
Apply that to Hamlin and JGR and things bode well for them in 2011.

Roush Fenway’s Carl Edwards came on strong in 2010 after front suspension problems, and other things, were sorted out. Edwards won the last two races of the season and finished fourth in the final point standings.

That was certainly better than in 2009, when Edwards didn’t win a race and dropped to 11th in points. In 2008, Edwards won nine races, including three of the final four, and wound up as the runnerup to champion Johnson.

The trend seems to be that when Edwards wins, he makes a particularly good showing in the Chase. If he can do that again in 2011 he has to be considered a title contender.

Kevin Harvick had a career year in 2010. He led the regular season point standings, won three races and had the best average finish in the Chase. He wound up third in points and, with Hamlin, was one of two drivers with a mathematical chance to win the championship at Homestead.

Harvick led RCR’s resurgence in 2010 as the organization put all three of its teams into the Chase.

You have to think Harvick and RCR are now brimming with confidence and feel certain they can take that small, needed step toward a championship.

If either Hamlin, Edwards or Harvick wins the championship in 2010, no one should be surprised.
But if Johnson makes it six in a row, no one should be surprised about that, either.
There are other potential contenders and darkhorses, of course.
And maybe the 2011 champion will be someone who surprises us all.
To be honest pre-season predictions are not much more than guesses. They’re pretty much what I’ve made.
But, hey, it is fun.
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