Chase Roundtable: 2010's best driver, title winner predictions
The driver who is able to best assess risk and reward will take the Cup title
Kevin Harvick has the least to lose, most to gain from hard racing at Homestead
Who will win the title? It's a toss up between Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
SI.com writers Lars Anderson, Tom Bowles and Brant James talk about this year's Chase for the Championship finale Sunday at Homestead-Miami.
1. What will be the most important factor in determining this year's champion?
Brant James: The Boogeyman factor: Johnson's late-summer revival was interrupted by a 25th-place finish at the first Chase for the Championship race, in which he became collateral damage in two accidents. But he won the following week at Dover to rekindle those familiar worries in his peers, and he produced five top-5s, seven straight top-10s, finished second once and third twice. And all this without finding the extra modicum of speed he's been seeking the last nine weeks.
The gulf between the No. 48 Chevrolet and Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota is the difference, Johnson said, between "good" and "great." Yet Johnson is still just 15 points from a fifth consecutive title. Having not only weathered Hamlin's best shots -- including victories in two of the last four races -- but also trimmed his deficit in the process, Johnson is in prime position to capitalize on an eventual bobble. And if he actually finds that extra speed this week, it's all over.
Lars Anderson: The driver who manages risk the best will be your 2010 Sprint Cup champion. Make no mistake: On Sunday you'll see Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick be as aggressive as they've been all season. But they need to pick their spots of when to go for broke wisely; one small slip could mean a title hope vanished.
Tom Bowles: I think it's going to come down to who handles the best in traffic, both at the start of the race and down the stretch. Here's a stat that might surprise you: The average qualifying position for the title-contending trio over the nine Chase races has been 19.8. Hamlin and Johnson have earned just one pole apiece at tracks they've dominated in recent years -- Dover and Martinsville -- while Harvick hasn't qualified higher than 14th (Talladega) the entire postseason. Sure, all three are coming to Homestead and putting their best foot forward, but haven't they done that every week? They're there to win the race, not the pole, and all three will likely be trapped in midpack for the first 50 laps. Even Hamlin, the race's 400-mile champ, qualified 38th en route to victory last year.
How hard do you race early, trying to push to the front and earn that critical "laps led" bonus while not abusing your equipment for later in the race? And will you give up time in first place to learn how the car handles in different situations, especially considering the possibility of a late-race double-file restart?
In the last seven years the track has hosted the season finale, there's been a caution inside the last 20 laps five times, including two green-white-checkered finishes. That means you need flexibility in your setup over the final segment, but you can't have it both ways. Who will adjust for the short run, who goes for the long run and which crew chief will be right? And who has a car that's capable of working through traffic if they stumble on a restart? Those are the questions that will decide the champion.
2. What are the most important strengths and notable weaknesses of Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?
Brant James: Denny Hamlin strengths: Great cars, upward arc in his talent, opportunity, smart, steadying crew chief (Mike Ford).
Denny Hamlin weakness: Hasn't proven the fox and eluded the hounds.
Jimmie Johnson strengths: Scars. He's raced at Homestead as the pursuer in 2004 and 2005 (unsuccessfully) and as the quarry the last four seasons (winning championships).
Jimmie Johnson weaknesses: He's chasing a driver with a history of success at Homestead.
Kevin Harvick strengths: Resiliency, ability to channel negativity into high performance and an emotionally tough team.
Kevin Harvick weakness: Forty-six points is just too far behind.
Lars Anderson: Johnson's biggest strength is that he rarely makes mistakes on the track. He's so smooth that he almost lulls his competition to sleep. His biggest weakness is this year in the Chase he simply hasn't possessed the raw speed that Hamlin has flashed. Johnson may have to rely on strategy to beat Hamlin.
Hamlin has off-the-charts car control; he can make his No. 11 Camry behave like a third arm. His weakness is that his emotions can get the best of him, and he'll occasionally commit a heat-of-the-moment blunder.
Harvick is a bully on the track, probably the driver who most closely resembles the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the way that he can muscle his competition aside. But Harvick is a longshot to win the title because he simply hasn't exhibited the kind of pure speed on the straightaways that Hamlin and Johnson have shown.
Tom Bowles: For Johnson, he's coming in with the best mental state of any of the three title contenders. The "been there, done that" attitude has combined with the unexpected Phoenix gift of being able to control his own destiny with the championship.
But the No. 48 team is far from bulletproof this year. For the first time, it has to actually race at Homestead instead of playing it safe. Crew chief Chad Knaus admitting four years of conservation mode gave him less notes than anyone else going in to the finale. The pit crew swap could also pose a challenge, Gordon's No. 24 team under just its second race working with Knaus and Co. Sure, Phoenix was flawless, but can the No. 24 team pit crew members keep their cool during the most pressure-packed race of their lives?
As for Hamlin, the point leader comes in with the best stats of anyone at Homestead over the last four seasons. History would say this title is in the bag if the team sticks to its game plan. But the driver's mental state has to be questioned after dominating Phoenix only to finish 12th on fuel mileage. This week, he's certainly given the impression that bad ending was put behind him, but the Achilles' Heel for this driver in recent years has been racing with his heart and not his head.
For Harvick, his strength comes in racing with nothing to lose. Guaranteed a third-place finish in points, why can't he go all out, stay aggressive and take chances the other two might not? His rebellious attitude keeps everyone around him confident, even when R-rated rants over the team radio make outsiders cringe. But to really put the pressure on, the No. 29 car has to not only win but also lead the most laps, and I'm just not sure it's capable of doing either.