Pick a car number – 11, 48, 29. It’s fairly easy to find reasons why the driver of each should roll into south Florida this weekend for the Sprint Cup championship showdown with a load of attitude.
Denny Hamlin? True, he had a shocking letdown last week at Phoenix, where all indications were that he was going to finish no worse than second, a run that would have allowed him to stroll into Homestead Friday with swagger and style. He was punched in the gut by a fuel-mileage finish, however, and, at least temporarily, was the saddest NASCAR driver ever to hold the point lead with one race remaining in the season.
But chances are the resilient Hamlin will leave that disappointment in the desert.
He should ride into Homestead-Miami Speedway on the wave produced by these notes: 1. He led 190 of 312 laps at Phoenix. 2. He was practically Superman the previous week in winning at Texas. 3. He won at Homestead last year. 4. He has been the steadiest, strongest, slickest driver in the Chase.
And, although it’s slim (15 points), he has the point lead and thus is the only driver of the three championship contenders who can control his own destiny.
Jimmie Johnson? Four straight championships buy you a ton of attitude. Not to mention a mediocre – by Johnson standards – run at Phoenix last week that, stunningly, still allowed Johnson to gain points on Hamlin.
Johnson was showing some attitude in the minutes that followed the Phoenix finish, suggesting that Hamlin and his crew watch their backs and cruising the garage like a man holding four aces.
Johnson knows that one of the best weapons he holds going into the season’s final week is intimidation. He has been there, done that four straight times, and Hamlin is a rookie in this scenario. Johnson said he’s happy right where he is, being the aggressor and the hunter.
That sort of approach might get under Hamlin’s skin, and Johnson will be sitting in wait for any little slipup that might open the door. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have proven to be experts at this sort of racing, and there will be no shortage of bravado from their camp this week.
Kevin Harvick? He lives daily with a certain amount of attitude. He is the closest thing to a schoolyard bully of the three contenders, and that can be a distinct advantage in the situation Harvick faces Sunday.
His road is the toughest, but he arrives in Homestead with the happy knowledge that he was able to perform a magical turnaround at Phoenix and remain in the championship hunt despite apparent disaster.
A forced repeat of a pit stop because of a missed lugnut looked like a dreadful problem, but it turned into a plus, giving Harvick more fuel for what turned into a fuel-mileage finish. He turned calamity into a sixth-place finish, preserving his chance at a first title this weekend.
Harvick should walk into the garage area Friday loose and calm, simply “Happy” to be there and to be in contention.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.