This is it, folks. The last race of the 2010 Sprint Cup Series season. The Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The race for all the marbles in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Three drivers have a shot at the title. Denny Hamlin holds a 15-point lead over four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick, who would have clinched the title under the old points format last week at Phoenix, sits in third, a mere 46 back.
Any of them could win the championship. In effect, it comes down to a win. Hamlin can clinch outright by winning the race. Johnson can do so by winning the race and leading the most laps. Harvick, on the other hand, needs a little more help—and although Johnson and Hamlin can still be beaten with top-10 finishes, the math gets tricky.
It’s the closest Chase title race since its inaugural season in 2004. So let’s forget the normal fantasy stuff this week, and switch it up a bit. We care about three drivers and three drivers only right now. And one of them will be your Sprint Cup champion come Sunday. But who?
Hamlin, of course, controls his own destiny. As we’ve said, if he wins the race, the title is his, no matter what. And Hamlin has won at this track before—last year, in fact, making him the only title contender with a Homestead win.
At the beginning of the Chase, he talked about simply making it to the end, because the last few races are when the No. 11 team heats up, and it’s shown in their performance. They’re the best team at the track right now.
But being good and being lucky are two different things, and Hamlin was not lucky last week at Phoenix. Having to pit for fuel very late in the race bounced him back to 12th. While it didn’t slaughter his points lead entirely, it did weaken it severely, and the pressure is on him.
Meanwhile, Johnson must be somewhat refreshed by his new position as the pressuring driver. With Hamlin thrown off by last week’s setback, he and Chad Knaus can try to mess with their key championship rivals on track. After all, they’ve done this before. Four times, to be precise. In a row. What’s a fifth?
Well, none of those previous four were come-from-behind wins. In fact, nobody’s ever come from behind in the Chase to win without holding the points lead with two races to go. It hasn’t been done in Cup since 1992, when Alan Kulwicki did it. And Johnson, with his 12.7 average finish, is actually the worst of the three title contenders at Homestead. While he usually finishes solidly at the track, he’s never capped off any of his title runs there with a win.
So, given all that, I’m going to take the road less traveled and pick Harvick to win the title.
If you’ve followed my column all Chase, you’d know that I pick a “lead” driver every week, and I’ve been saving Harvick for this very weekend anyway. With four top-fives in nine starts, he has the best average finish of the title contenders at the track, an 8.4. He’s finished second and third the past two years at Homestead, so he knows what he’s doing.
And I’m going to put my faith in karma—that the driver who dominated the regular season, who should have a 200-plus points lead and his first Cup championship right now, will find a way to get it done—and get a little lucky this weekend.
Game on, gentlemen. It should be a fun show.