Not since the inaugural playoff race in 2004 has the Chase for the Sprint Cup been so close entering the season finale.
Entering the race Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamlin owns a 15-point lead on Johnson, the four-time defending Cup champion, and a 46-point lead on third-place Harvick.
In 2004, Kurt Busch led Johnson by 18 points and Jeff Gordon by 21 heading into the final race. Busch held on to win the title by eight points over Johnson and 16 over Gordon in the closest margin in Chase history.
While Hamlin could win the title if he finishes second at Homestead and leads the most laps, to do that would take the same mentality as a must-win situation. In some ways, that’s good – he doesn’t have to play conservative.
“I’d rather race next week knowing I need to go out there and I need to win the race than knowing I need to finish 15th,” Hamlin said. “That’s the mentality I’m going to have next week, is to win the race. The full‑court press will be on.
“It will be one of those things where you’ll probably see me as aggressive as I’ve been all year.”
None of the championship contenders can race conservatively – they must all employ the same strategy as Hamlin. If they can lead, they will. If they can lead the most laps, they will.
Only two races with the current Cup car have been run at Homestead. Hamlin finished 13th in 2008 and won last year. Harvick has finished second and a third in the past two races at Homestead while Johnson has a sixth and a fifth, though he raced conservatively in both events while wrapping up back-to-back titles.
“We just have to be aggressive,” Harvick said. “That’s been a great race track, statistically, which is something you guys like to use.
“It’s our best race track on the circuit, so we’re looking forward to it.”
If there is a tie in the final points standings, the driver with the most wins captures the championship. That means Hamlin, who has eight wins this season, wins all tiebreakers while Johnson, who has six wins, wins a tiebreaker over Harvick (three wins).
The pressure might be on Hamlin as the points leader, but Johnson said his team needs to find the speed Hamlin has had the last two weeks. Hamlin won at Texas and led 190 laps at Phoenix before finishing 12th in the fuel-mileage race.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Johnson said. “We’re trying as hard as we can. We’re going to go home and we’re going to make sure we have the best engines, go through our simulation stuff, make sure our car is as fast as it can be and then race.
“I wish we had more speed. We were looking like we had in years past. Last couple weeks we’ve been good and they’ve been great. We need to get that turned around and be great.”
With Hamlin winning at the track last year, the perception is that this is his championship to lose.
“We were able to sit on the pole last year for the race,” Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus said. “The 11 car won. We finished top five. So I feel like we’ve got a good baseline and a good set of notes to go off of for this year.
“So I think we can go down there with a plan and try to execute. Those guys are good. You can’t take it away from those 11 [team] guys.
“I love racing with those guys; they’re fun to race against. The guys on the team are really good guys and they’re fun to compete against. So I’m looking forward to going down there and racing with them.”
Harvick crew chief Gil Martin said he feels good about Harvick’s chances.
“I think we’re better than both of them,” Martin said. “Homestead is a great track for Kevin. We ran excellent there last year, and we’ve got a brand new car we’re taking there.
“We’re looking forward to it. … I’m not taking anything away from them at all. They’re going to race really good there, too. What I mean is, that’s Kevin’s kind of track. He runs well there. He’s got a good record there. I think we’re going to be good. I’m just predicting that we’re going to do everything we can do to win this championship.”
Hamlin has been at his best in the final stretch of the Chase. In the last three races, he won at Martinsville and Texas and then led the most laps at Phoenix. He will take the Texas car to Homestead.
“We know we can win at Homestead, and that’s what we’re going to go work on,” Ford said. “This is fun. This is why they narrowed it down to 10 races, right? That’s what it is.
“If you start the season and they say, ‘Man, give us a 15-point lead going into Homestead,’ what would you say? You’d be happy. You’ve just got to enjoy the moment and make the most of it.”
The key for Hamlin and Ford will be dealing with the pressure.
“My nine years being in Cup, I’ve lived in championship pressure, especially the last four years,” Johnson said. “I know how bad [Hamlin] wants to win a championship. I remember my first. … This week is going to be a tough week for him because I’ve been there.
“I hope he can’t handle it as well as I did in ’06. I want it to work out for me. Selfishly, for me, I want him to not do the right things. We’ll just see how the week works out.”
With the points so close, it could come down to something such as fuel mileage or pit strategy, just as the race at Phoenix did as Hamlin ended up 12th when he had to pit late for fuel.
“How does it feel to work 36 weeks and have it come down to something like that?” Martin said. “You know the emotional roller coaster that we go through week-in and week-out. It’s hard on all these guys.
“We race side-by-side with them and everybody is somewhat friends to a certain degree, but everybody wants to win. This is an extremely hard sport for tough people and you’ve just got to be able to deal with it.”
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