NASCAR Sprint Cup: Why Denny Hamlin is Now in the Championship Driver's Seat

Lee ScogginsContributor INovember 8, 2010

Let the champaign flow!
Let the champaign flow!Tom Pennington/Getty Images

For the first time since the Chase for the Sprint Cup was instituted, playing it safe is not an option. Just ask Denny Hamlin. At least that's his view of things. When it came down to a final restart, with Matt Kenseth getting the lead initially, Hamlin could have settled for second place and a decent points day at Texas. Instead, he made a risky crossover move in turn two to go for the win.

Going into Phoenix, there are 59 points separating the top three spots in the Chase, with Kevin Harvick in third place. Jimmie Johnson finds himself on the outside looking in, 33 points out of the lead.

With two races remaining until the crown is awarded, Johnson would have to do something that has only been done a couple of other times in NASCAR history to claim his fifth Sprint Cup Championship, which is overtake the points leader with two races left.

All three drivers in the hunt for the champion's trophy had issues they had to overcome to get a decent finish on Sunday. Johnson had repeated issues on pit road that caused him to lose track position and have to work through the field to get back to the front.

Dropped lug nuts, problems getting wheels on the hub and tight pit box issues eventually led to crew chief, Chad Knaus benching the entire over-the-wall crew after Jeff Gordon tangled with Jeff Burton.

The substitution of the pit crew is something that has never happened in the middle of a race before, and it was one indication that the No. 48 team has lost their infallibility.  It is also evident that the team is willing to take desperate measures to stay in play through Homestead.

Hendrick Motor Sports announced on Monday that the No. 24 crew would move to Johnson's pit for the remainder of the season. It remains to be seen if this move will be as helpful as the same tactic has been for Harvick, who had the No. 33 pit crew moved to his car a couple of weeks ago.

Speaking of Harvick, his late-race brush of the wall erased any hope he had of being able to race for the win at Texas. Sheer determination and driving skill allowed him to get enough out of his crippled race car to salvage a sixth place finish. The top-ten finish, however, was not enough to keep him from losing a little bit of ground on the points lead.

Hamlin had his own issues to overcome after a poor qualifying effort saw him start the race in the 28th position. After five laps, Hamlin had dropped to 30th and it looked like it was going to be a long day. Then, by lap 71, he had pulled things together and moved through the field to run in eighth. From that point on, running in the top ten was the norm for the No. 11.

On lap 305, Greg Biffle gave up the lead when something broke in his transmission causing him to lose second gear. That resulted in an inability to get a good restart following the last couple of cautions. This situation would come into play again during the final restart when Biffle was the car in front of Jimmie Johnson, preventing Johnson from making any real challenge for the win, and relegating the No. 48 to a ninth place finish.

Hamlin took the lead for the first time under green on lap 306 and ran in the top four for the remainder of the race. He took the lead for the last time, passing Kenseth following the final caution on lap 333.

Confidence is not lacking in Denny Hamlin, nor his crew chief, Mike Ford. They both have talked about their game plan for several races, promising that they would ratchet up the intensity during the final three races of the Chase. Making boastful claims is one thing, delivering on them is something else. And the FedEx crew is certainly doing that.

With a series-high eight wins, Hamlin is firmly in the drivers seat. If he continues to deliver on his promises, the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship trophy will be housed at Joe Gibbs Racing after the final checkered flag flies at Homestead.