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Final Chasers: Handicapping Hamlin, Johnson, Harvick

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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After running 35 races in 10 months with thousands of miles of racing in the book the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship comes down to Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The three-man title race features the closest margin between first and second since the Chase format debuted in 2004 and NASCAR could not have scripted a better way to end the season.

Sizing up the trio of title contenders -- Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick -- provides an intriguing look at three drivers and their respective teams with distinctly different strengths and weaknesses in the quest for the crown.

A case can be made for any of the three to be hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy in Homestead on Sunday but each will need some specific things to happen in order for the dream to come true.

The tale of the tape for this "Showdown in South Florida:"

DENNY HAMLIN

Denny Hamlin leads the series with eight wins this season. (Getty Images)  
Denny Hamlin leads the series with eight wins this season. (Getty Images)  
Overview: When Hamlin climbed out of the car after winning last year's season finale at Homestead he immediately stirred things up by proclaiming he would be the driver to unseat Johnson as series champion in 2010. He has one more race to fulfill that prediction and has put together one of the most memorable seasons in series history, bringing a series-leading eight victories into Homestead.

Hamlin's defining moment may have been a 30th-place finish in Phoenix last April when he decided to stay in the car while obviously in pain from his ACL knee surgery that took place a week before. Hamlin made a statement to his crew that day, and that demonstration of teamwork and dedication has been a key to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 team's success this season.

Obstacles: Last week's fuel mileage calculation issues in Phoenix, which saw Hamlin finish 12th despite having the most dominant car of the day, has suddenly put some doubt in the minds of a race team that has been the epitome of confidence -- and some would say cockiness -- this year. For the first time the faith between Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford has been tested and the duo cannot afford to let the events of Phoenix ruin the rock solid chemistry that has taken them so far in 2010.

Intangibles: Hamlin said before this year's Chase began he was going to use previous appearances in NASCAR's playoffs as an education. He has shown great maturity and patience during this year's title race, and despite his outburst after last week's Phoenix frustration, has done a good job of bottling his emotions rather than let them get in the way of the matter at hand. The desire to come through on his bold prediction of a title in 2010 is all the motivation Hamlin needs Sunday.

Quotable: "You never know what can happen in the final race. I hate that it boils down to the final race, but that's what fans love and things like that. I felt like we've been the best car over this Chase and we might not win it."

JIMMIE JOHNSON

Jimmie Johnson has collected six victories this season. (Getty Images)  
Jimmie Johnson has collected six victories this season. (Getty Images)  
Overview: By the standards of the four-time champion, this hasn't been a typical season. That may be difficult to believe when you look at the fact that Johnson has won seven races in 2010 and finds himself just 15 points out of the Chase lead with one to go. But there have been several more challenges for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus this year than in their four previous championship campaigns combined, and they've had to overcome adversity to get into the position they find themselves.

Although there were struggles during the season and uncharacteristic finishes well outside the top thirty on some occasions, once the Chase began Johnson flicked the switch that has taken him to the four titles. He bobbled at the Chase opener in New Hampshire but since then hasn't finished outside the top 10.

Obstacles: For the first time in the last four years, Johnson has to race much harder in Homestead with the title on the line. He's enjoyed the luxury of bringing a healthy point lead into the finale during his record-setting championship run but now finds himself in the odd position of being a chaser. Johnson will also have a different pit crew working for him in the deciding race with the former Jeff Gordon crew on pit road after the much-publicized swap of personnel two weeks ago. It's a solid group to be sure but not one that has worked under such pressure-packed conditions.

Intangibles: The old saying goes you can't teach experience, and Johnson has more than anyone in running for and winning a title under the Chase format. His California cool personality suits him perfectly under times of pressure, and unlike some others, Johnson embraces the opportunity to perform when things mean the most. Knaus is a master of coaxing his driver to give just what's necessary in race conditions and helping him stay focused even when things aren't perfect.

Quotable: "I hope the pressure of us being on [Hamlin's] heels really works on his mind throughout the course of the week -- he and his crew. Those guys better be on their toes. Not only do they have the 48 to worry about, but they have the 29 and one race winner take all."

KEVIN HARVICK

Kevin Harvick has put together three winning races this year. (Getty Images)  
Kevin Harvick has put together three winning races this year. (Getty Images)  
Overview: Harvick's run at the championship is the ultimate example of the complete turnaround at Richard Childress Racing this season. After RCR was shut out of even making the Chase last season, three drivers -- led by Harvick -- made this year's playoffs. And considering Harvick was this close to leaving the team at the midway point a season ago, his performance in 2010 has been all the more impressive.

Like Johnson, Harvick has demonstrated the uncanny ability to turn days that looked like sure 25-30th place finished into top fives and top 10s. Underrated crew chief Gil Martin has done a masterful job of channeling the sometimes hot headed Harvick's emotional outbursts into positive energy that has put them smack in the middle of winning RCR's first Cup title since Dale Earnhardt took the championship in 1994.

Obstacles: Harvick does not control his own destiny and needs help in the way of problems for Hamlin and Johnson to make up ground in the standings. He simply cannot keep pace or finish just ahead of either on Sunday in order to leapfrog two positions and steal the crown. Harvick will need to most likely win the race and have his two rivals suffer some untimely fate to pull off the upset.

Intangibles: Harvick has made it very clear he's unhappy with the perception by some that he's a huge underdog in the title fight and has been overlooked as a serious contender. That's just the kind of motivation Harvick likes to use to prove people wrong and it could play into the kind of storybook ending NASCAR and many fans have been hoping for this season.

Quotable: "Our whole team is just a lot different. It's a lot different, or we're a unique bunch I guess you could say. I guess you could categorize us as a little rough or hard-core type of racers that have come up through the ranks. It's just a little bit different than the other two teams. I think you guys can figure it out."

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