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Harris: Dealing With ‘Pit’ Woes Is Key To Winning Chase

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, September 14 2010

Jimmie Johnson says the nerves can get to drivers and crews during the Chase. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

Heading into NASCAR’s Chase to the Sprint Cup championship, there are 12 very motivated drivers racing for the title.

Jimmie Johnson wants to win another championship and there are 11 others, well, driven to take it away from him.

But only one of them can win the title, and history shows that is going to be the one who is most consistent throughout the 10-race postseason.

Johnson again has something to prove. He likes the idea that people think he’s unbeatable in the Chase, and the only way to keep that aura of invincibility is to win the title for the fifth straight year.

Even though he has an unprecedented string of championships going, the Hendrick Motorsports driver says he and his No. 48 team will be nervous heading into the first race of the Chase on Sunday at New Hampshire.

“There’s just a pit that develops in your stomach and doesn’t go away,’’ he said. “It’s the championship pit and it’s there. We are all going to wake up with it and deal with it, and some guys handle it better than others.

“I think our team the last four years has been really comfortable with that pit in their stomach and dealt with it well. I hope we can do it again.’’

Denny Hamlin has been touted as Johnson’s No. 1 rival since he finished last year’s Chase as the hottest driver in the series, coming up with two wins a second and a third in the last five races of 2009. It was too late to catch JJ, but it did  get everyone’s attention. And Hamlin, who will start the Chase 10 points ahead of Johnson, based on his six wins to JJ’s five in 2010, remains the biggest threat to Johnson’s dominance.

There is an old saying in racing that you have to lose a championship before you can win one. Not sure if last year’s fifth-place finish qualifies Hamlin in that department, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver considers himself a legitimate contender.

“We have won at, I don’t know, probably three or four of the Chase tracks during the course of my career, and that’s encouraging for us,’’ Hamlin said after gaining momentum with a win at Richmond. “The thing is never through the course of my career have I ever felt  … that anywhere I show up, I could win.  Other than, the exception of a road course – I feel like I can run top five there – but I’ve never felt like I could just win anywhere I went, until this year.

“And especially at this point now, the confidence level is pretty high.’’

That goes for Kevin Harvick, too.

The Richard Childress Racing driver led the standings most of the regular season. But with the points reset after last Saturday’s Richmond race, his 228-point margin over regular-season runner-up Kyle Busch is wiped away and the three-time winner starts the Chase 30 points behind Hamlin. Still, his consistency throughout 2010 makes him a serious contender.

“How it all plays out, I don’t know,’’ Harvick said. “But it’s the most competitive that we have ever been as far as speed and the things that you need to race for wins, and in order to win the championship.

“I feel you’re going to have to finish in the top five a lot and you’re going to have to win a race or two to make that happen. And this is the first time we had not just been coming and going seventh-, eighth-, ninth-place finishes.  We have been able to run in races in the top five.’’

While Johnson may figure his biggest competition may come from Hamlin and Harvick, he expects this year’s Chase to be as competitive as any since the format was initiated in 2004.

“Looking at the last month, the 99 (Carl Edward), the 18 (Kyle Busch), the 11 (Hamlin), hopefully us, 29 (Harvick); I think you’ve got five or six cars that can really race for the championship,’’ Johnson said. “And then, when you get outside of that, I think there are some guys that are finding speed.  We saw the 16 (Greg Biffle) at Pocono; I think Clint (Bowyer) and his team, they seem to be collecting a lot of points and running well.  I know the 2 (2004 champion Kurt Busch) has it in him.

“I think this year, it’s really tough, because you have some streaky guys and the 29 that’s been pretty consistent and the 24 (four-time champion Jeff Gordon) that’s been really consistent.  I don’t know how to handicap it or who to fear the most because everyone has it in them. ”

I’m sure Johnson didn’t mean to spite anyone, but he did forget to mention two-time champion Tony Stewart, 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth and steady Jeff Burton – all possible contenders.

What it all adds up to is a very enticing scenario; kind of Jimmie Johnson against the world. Should be fun.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, September 14 2010
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