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CUP: Contenders Love Homestead

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Three drivers, one race, one track. One championship to be won or lost.

It’s all on the line Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where either Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick will be crowned as the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion following the conclusion of the Ford 400.

From purely a statistical standpoint, the 1.5-mile South Florida track is a place where all three title hopefuls run well. Hamlin is the defending winner of the Ford 400, while Harvick finished third and Johnson fifth in last year’s race.

In terms of overall results, Harvick is the best of the three contenders at Homestead with a stellar 8.444 average finish in nine starts, vs. 10.600 for Hamlin and 12.667 for Johnson. But there is something of an asterisk for Johnson: In each of the last four years, he’s come to Homestead leading in points and has had the luxury of not having to race for the victory.

“I think the biggest concern that I've got currently is that we haven't gone to Homestead to truly race yet,” said Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus. “We've gone down there with a bit of a protective mindset, so I think that puts us a little bit behind compared to the other guys. Denny, he ran top five most of the race last year. They had a good pit stop at the end, got some good track position, was able to win the race and that was a good job by them. We ran 15th to fifth the majority of the day but never really had to get ourselves in a position where we had to push the car a whole lot. So we haven't had to be the aggressor there, so I think that puts us a little bit behind the eight-ball.”

Without question, the success Hamlin and Harvick have had at Homestead has made them supremely confident heading into this weekend.

“If you look at stats, yeah, it's good,” said Hamlin. “It looks good for us. If you look at history, it looks good for us. But, you never know what can happen. ... We just hope to have a clean race next week and the best car win. That's all that we can ask for to crown the champ. That's the thing, is I'm proud that we've stepped up our performance like we have over these last few weeks. It's very proud for me to be able to do that. So, I'm just going to continue to keep digging as hard as I can go and try to beat those guys. It's going to be tough. Those guys are going to be good. We see that every week. They're top five. As far as I'm concerned, it's going to take a win.”

Despite having the most ground to make up, Harvick is optimistic about Homestead as well.

“I feel excited because the worst we can finish in the points is third,” he said. “We have a great race track for us, and we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. There’s really nothing else that matters at this point. Just throw it all out there, and if it gets rough, it gets rough. If it doesn’t, then we just go race and see where it all falls in the end. It’s still a no-pressure, no-lose situation for us, and I like it.”

As far as the track itself, Homestead is considerably different than the other 1.5-mile tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit.

“You can charge Turn 1 a little bit more than you can at most places, because as you get through the corner, the banking seems to get steeper all the way through, and you have options,” said Harvick. “You can run the top, you can run the bottom, you can run the middle, or you can split the middle-top or middle-bottom and make your car turn. It’s just a unique race track, and it seems to fit the guys that like to move around and make their cars work in different spots. It has been a great race track for us. We’ve had great results over the past several years there. It’s a race track that kind of fits my driving style. We’ve run well there, and I don’t think there is anything that should keep us from doing that this time, either.”

Whatever happens on Sunday, this much is certain: It’s go time.

“We've got to go to Homestead and race for it,” said Johnson. “There's no doubt about it. I continue to hear that the No. 48 hasn't had to race for it before and we've raced for it all Chase long. Maybe at Homestead we've been able to protect, but we certainly know that's not the case this year and I love where we are. I love putting pressure on these guys.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.