With A Little Luck, The Dark Horse Could Romp
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
As the three contenders head to Homestead-Miami Speedway to decide the Sprint Cup championship, the talk on the street and on the Net is about which of the them – Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick – will prevail.
At the Trading Post, a boots and blue jeans store just outside Fayetteville, Ga., the favorite was Kevin Harvick. The reason the folks at the Trading Post are in Harvick’s corner is mostly because he’s the man who took over for their previous favorite, the late Dale Earnhardt.
They also like the fact that Harvick is rather aggressive as a driver, and they appreciate the way he handles himself off the track.
If Harvick can’t overcome the 46-point deficit to Hamlin that he carries into the finale, the Trading Post crew would rather see Jimmie Johnson win it. It’s not that they’re big Johnson fans. They just want to see an American nameplate take the title, and the other man in the hunt, Denny Hamlin, drives a Toyota. Johnson and Harvick, of course, drive Chevys.
Even though he’s been labeled a dark horse, Harvick might have a chance after all. Throughout the season, and certainly on Sunday at Phoenix, he’s had luck on his side. It was a missing lug nut on a pit stop that looked devastating at first but instead put him in position to take on the fuel he needed to make it to the finish and keep his Chase hopes alive.
There are plenty of people inside and outside of motorsports who will attest that it’s usually better to be lucky than good.
Harvick also has been pretty good, even as his two Richard Childress Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton have migrated to the bottom of the Chase chart.
Harvick’s crew chief Gil Martin said after Phoenix that he and his crew are headed to Homestead believing they’re still in the running.
“Hey man, we’re in this thing,” he said. “I think we still have it.”
He said the key for all three teams will be avoiding mistakes.
“It is going to take a flat tire or something like that to make something happen,” he said. “I think next week it is going to be every man for himself. It will probably be wild next week. I’m looking forward to it.”
Although Johnson continues to rank as the favorite among many inside and outside the garage, it’s pretty clear that from a performance standpoint he’s trailing Hamlin.
Hamlin’s performance on intermediate tracks has been unmatched of late, and on Sunday he had the dominant car at Phoenix before the gas mileage situation bit him. But even that wasn’t as bad as it seemed on the surface.
Suppose he had gone into fuel-saving mode and run dry, as Tony Stewart did at New Hampshire, where he went from leading to finishing 24th? And even if Hamlin had been in fuel-saving mode, he likely wouldn’t have been able to stay among the top two. So the bottom line is that playing it safe on fuel probably only cost him about 20 points.
If he and his crew don’t do some self-destructing this week over the Phoenix gas situation, they should arrive in Homestead with the fastest car. And that’s something that Johnson is plenty aware of, as his post-race comments at Phoenix indicated.
“We’re very aware of that situation,” Johnson said of the fact that Hamlin’s car has been faster than his in recent races. “We’re doing everything we can. We’re trying as hard as we can. We’re going to go home and we’re going to make sure we have the best engines, go through our simulation stuff, make sure our car is as fast as it can be and then race.
“I wish we had more speed…. Last couple weeks we’ve been good and they’ve been great. We need to get that turned around and be great.
“If not, I know that with (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) on the box, we’re going to work on a strategy and hopefully find an upper hand somewhere, somehow.”
Or his luck could run out and NASCAR will have a new champion.
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment