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Harris: Chase Is A Real Three-ler

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 11 2010

Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson have some work to do the next couple of weekends. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Two races to go and Jimmie Johnson no longer seems invincible in NASCAR’s Chase.

At this time of year, it’s usually the guys trying to catch the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion who are running into problems on the track and in the pits, allowing Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet team to go for the kill in a quiet, professional manner – kind of like a rattler striking at a helpless rabbit.

Sunday at Texas was definitely the exception and there have been thousands – maybe millions – of words written and said about the crew swap with teammate Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 outfit.

Was this finally a real chink in the seemingly unchinkable armor of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus?

More to the point, after finishing up last season in a rush that nearly stole the headlines from Johnson, Denny Hamlin is right where he wants to be – and needs to be – heading to Phoenix this weekend for the penultimate Cup race of 2010.

He’s ahead of Johnson and in great position to do exactly what he has been telling anyone who would listen this season that he would accomplish – win his first championship.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The margin between first and second is just 33 points with two races remaining. To put that into perspective, Johnson led Hamlin by 14 points going into Texas. Hamlin won the race and Johnson finished ninth – certainly not a disastrous day. The reigning champ lost a total of 49 points.

Oh, and don’t forget third-place Kevin Harvick. He went to Texas 38 points behind the leader, finished sixth and finds himself 59 behind the new leader. Obviously a very volatile situation.

You can tell Hamlin is feeling pretty darn confident, but he’s saying all the right things.

“We still know going into Phoenix that that’s a great racetrack for both of those guys, and it’s been a very up and down racetrack for me,’’ Hamlin noted. “We’ve got to go there with our guns loaded and see if we can’t get another win, and I’m going to race like we need to win from here on out.  I’ve been saying with three to go I was going to be a little bit more aggressive.’’

It would seem like Johnson would have at least a psychological edge since he has been here so many times before – and not just as a winner. He also has finished second (2003 and 2004) in close battles. Championship pressure is nothing new to JJ.

But Hamlin looks and talks like a driver ready to win it all.

“I don’t get excited anymore,’’ Hamlin said. “I just don’t let things get to me much anymore and just race relaxed.  I’m really not nervous going into races.  I was more nervous at the very first Chase race in New Hampshire getting ready to start that race than I was from then to this point.

“For me, we’re on the cusp of trying to get our first championship, and as long as we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we should be okay.’’

This is a very satisfying moment for all the Jimmie haters and the folks who believe NASCAR needs a new champion. But nothing has been settled, yet.

I fully expect the three-way battle to go right down to the final laps at Homestead in two weeks, just as it did in the first Chase in 2004 when Kurt Busch held on to beat Johnson by eight points and third-place Gordon by 16 in the closest three-way finish ever.

Who knows, this one might wind up even closer. Wouldn’t that be fun?

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

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 11 2010
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