Chase Roundtable: Who will take the title? (cont.)
3. Is there any non-title contender who could be a factor in determining the champ at Homestead?
Brant James: Carl Edwards: He won nine races in 2008, including the finale at Homestead, and was the popular pick to dethrone Johnson last year. Instead he needed 70 races to win again, that one coming last week at Phoenix. He might have something to prove on a big, big stage dominated by his Roush Fenway team.
Lars Anderson: I think it could be Jeff Gordon. Look for him to be in Johnson's ear all weekend. Gordon, who is Johnson's teammate and co-owner of his car, excels at fine-tuning setups in practice sessions, and any setup secrets he discovers he'll immediately share with his teammate and close friend.
Tom Bowles: It's Roush-Fenway Racing and Carl Edwards who are heating up. Coming off a Phoenix sweep, Mr. Backflip ended that 70-race winless streak and has won at Homestead before, taking the checkers in a fuel mileage duel in 2008. Teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle are also finishing strong, have wins of their own down in southern Florida and come into this race with incentive to either end a personal victory drought (Kenseth) or fight for a spot on stage at the banquet (Biffle). Considering Fords have won seven of the last nine down in Miami, don't be shocked if they pull off a 1-2-3 finish.
Honorable mention, by the way, goes to Juan Pablo Montoya and Brad Keselowski. Remember how both got in scrapes with Tony Stewart and Hamlin, respectively, over last year's championship weekend? If either man is running near the front, trust me, not affecting the title contenders will be the last thing on their minds. Each one of the title contenders, particularly Hamlin with Keselowski, needs to be careful around Stewart and Keselowski.
4. Who has been 2010's strongest driver? Is he different from your Sprint Cup title winner? Why?
Brant James: Strongest driver: Kevin Harvick: He led the driver standings for 20 of 26 weeks in the regular season, and after beginning the Chase third (because his three wins were less than Hamlin's six and Johnson's five) he has produced four top-5s and eight top-10s. A 15th-place finish at Dover was his only result worse than ninth.
Harvick lost a 228-point lead when the standings were reseeded for the Chase. He overcame an early season controversy over his free-agent contract status at Richard Childress Racing and the loss of sponsor Shell Pennzoil for next year. Denny Hamlin had knee surgery and Jimmie Johnson's wife had a baby. Major life events, certainly, but Harvick performed at a higher level under greater levels of duress.
Lars Anderson: The best driver for the majority of the season has been Hamlin. True, Harvick would have won the title under the old points system, but Hamlin is the one driver who -- week in, week out -- has had a car capable of winning.
Tom Bowles: No matter what happens, you have to give Hamlin credit for a career year, a personal best eight wins is near miraculous when you consider he had ACL reconstructive surgery in April. Most had him written off for the Chase, let alone contending for a championship after limping to 30th in his first race back at Phoenix. But he won the next time out at Texas, clicked off four victories in eight races and learned how to finish others. He's on track to complete more laps (over 10,500 after Homestead) than in any of his five Cup seasons.
Right on his heels comes Harvick, who was heading for seemingly certain divorce from RCR after an ugly 19th-place finish in the 2009 standings. But this season has seen a remarkable comeback, a career- and NASCAR-high 25 top-10 finishes with the type of consistency that would have him the champion in the series' old point system by nearly 300 over all others.
Jamie McMurray also makes it in there, even though he missed the Chase. This year's Daytona 500 winner was seemingly out on the street before inking a deal with Chip Ganassi last November, a second marriage that turned out to be the boost both needed to contend once again in Cup. McMurray wound up winning the Brickyard 400, too, taking NASCAR's two crown jewels while making his owner the first ever to win Daytona and both Indy races in the same year. Tacking on a Charlotte victory this fall, the team is learning consistency and has transformed into a trendy darkhorse pick to capture the 2011 title.
5. Who will win the title and why?
Brant James: Jimmie Johnson: He's made it to the final round rope-a-doping the Chesterfield kid. He's been here before. He just needs to find the one big punch to retain the belt.
Lars Anderson: Hamlin. He's been the best driver in the Chase and he loves Homestead-Miami Speedway. He's the reigning race winner here and I think he'll win again on Sunday.
Tom Bowles: One week ago, I was finally jumping on the Denny Hamlin bandwagon. Now? I'm right back off it. My pick at the start of the Chase was Johnson, and how can you go against a man who's won four straight titles against all sorts of circumstances? I think that Phoenix finish woke up a sleeping giant, and the Johnson-Knaus duo has the momentum and seems to relish the challenge of coming from behind at a track they haven't had to "race on" for five years. I'll go Johnson in a squeaker, placing second in the race while Hamlin and Harvick wind up seventh and eighth, respectively.
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