The three crew chiefs who will help decide the winner of the 2010 Sprint Cup championship are locked and loaded and ready for Homestead.
Gil Martin, crew chief for third-place Kevin Harvick, is taking a new car to Sunday’s season-ending race and is so confident that it’s ready that he has made plans for his team to take a deepsea-fishing trip prior to starting work at the track.
Mike Ford, crew chief for point leader Denny Hamlin, said he and his driver will be on the same page at Homestead after a tough Sunday last week at Phoenix.
And Chad Knaus, winner of the past four titles with driver Jimmie Johnson, says he and Johnson are all set – indeed, very pleased – to be the challengers entering Homestead, for a change.
How well the three teams are prepared will begin to become known Friday as practice and qualifying are scheduled for Sunday’s 400-mile race, the final event of a grueling 36-race, coast-to-coast schedule.
“We’re going into Homestead with a lot of optimism,” said Knaus. “We’re definitely excited about the opportunity to be battling for a championship once again. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to put ourselves in this position a few times.
“We closed it up some at Phoenix, giving us a fighting chance. If we do everything we need to do, we have the opportunity to win it.”
Hamlin’s point lead over Johnson was trimmed to 15 Sunday after a late-race pit stop and a fuel-mileage finish dropped Hamlin from second out of the top 10, leading Hamlin to toss some public criticism Ford’s way in the post-race press conference. On Tuesday, Ford said there are no lingering problems.
“Denny knows how to call races, and he watches these races and studies them,” Ford said. “But when you mix partial information with lack of information and throw in a little frustration, you get inaccurate comments. He said some things that weren’t true. I can deal with that. I’ll blow my stack occasionally, as well, and say things I wish I hadn’t said. You can look over that. That’s nothing new.”
Martin said Harvick and the 29 team are fired up and ready to race for all the marbles, especially considering they can fall no lower than third in points this week. After a fishing trip out of Key West, they’ll settle in to try to lift Harvick from third to the championship.
“We know the job we have at hand, and we’re going down there with our best piece,” Martin said. “We met this morning. I think our driver’s ready.”
Asked what Harvick can boast over the other two contenders, Martin said, “I think he works his best under these kinds of conditions. Head games will not bother him. He’s one of the best there is at playing head games. I’m very happy to have a driver with that strong of a mental aspect about him.
“I wouldn’t swap him for anybody right now.”
Martin said his team will be full bore from the opening bell Friday.
“We’re not intending on playing any defense at all,” he said. “We’re going to throw the long ball all day long and see where it ends up.”
Ford said Hamlin sits in the best position with a 15-point lead. If he wins the race or finishes second and leads a lap, he wins the title regardless of the other contenders’ performances.
“We have to make sure that we don’t do anything stupid,” he said. “If we don’t have to win the race, then you don’t take chances to do that. You don’t make mistakes that take you out of contention at the end of the day. But you can’t play defense in this situation because you’re not sitting on a huge lead.”
Knaus, perhaps playing a mind game of his own, has repeatedly suggested that the pressure is on Hamlin this weekend because the other teams can swing for the fences.
“The pressure is on the guys on the 11,” he said. “They have to be cognizant of what we’re doing and what the guys on the 29 are doing.”
As for the 48, Knaus said his team, which has rolled into Homestead with the point lead the past four seasons, is forced to approach the race differently.
“I think the biggest concern that we have currently is that we haven’t gone to Homestead to truly race yet,” he said. “We’ve gone down there with a protective mindset. We haven’t had to be the aggressor there. I think that puts us a little behind the eight ball. But, when we go to tracks and try to get aggressive with it, we normally do pretty well.”
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.