NASCAR Sprint Cup: Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick Are the New Guard

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NASCAR Sprint Cup: Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick Are the New Guard
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick sat on the podium at the championship contenders’ news conference on Thursday to talk about their seasons, their chances and their mindsets going into the Ford 400 at Homestead on Sunday.

While the questions and their answers focused on this weekend and this season, their very presence on that stage said a lot more about how far NASCAR has come.

Two Chevrolet drivers from California flanked a Toyota driver from Virginia. Their homes and their rides say a lot about how the sport has changed in just a few short years.

For the first time in Sprint Cup history, a driver behind the wheel of a car produced by a foreign automaker has a shot at the title headed into Homestead.

For just the second time in Chase history, none of the drivers with a shot at the title headed into the last race ever raced against Dale Earnhardt in the Sprint Cup series, and only two drivers in the Chase field this season were racing against Earnhardt when he won his last championship in 1994.

Time has marched on.

As the first decade of the new millennium bows out, Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick have in one way or another helped lead the sport out of its storied past.

Virginia native Denny Hamlin has a shot at bringing Toyota its first Sprint Cup title. It wasn’t that long ago that the thought of a foreign automaker participating in NASCAR seemed almost laughable, even threatening.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Denny Hamlin could bring Toyota its first Sprint Cup title.

Back in 2007, Jack Roush led the charge against the Japanese company’s participation in what had been an exclusively American racing series: “Toyota will not find that the established teams and manufacturers will wither in their path, as has been the case where they have tried to engage elsewhere."

Joe Gibbs Racing became the flagship for Toyota when it came in back in 2007 and, as evidenced by this year, has brought them to the cusp of greatness in the Sprint Cup Series, matching the championships in the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series.

For Jimmie Johnson, he’s unleashed an unprecedented assault on the record books. His four straight titles are unmatched in NASCAR, and he sits just 15 points away from a staggering fifth title.

While even Johnson admits that his accomplishments have come at the chagrin of other drivers and fans, it’s history just the same.  “I know it won't last forever.  That also needs to be said.  Going to ride the wave as long as we can, see what we can do.”

“I think when people are on a run, doesn't matter the sport, at that time it's hard for everyone to embrace it.  But when they reflect back on it, it's:  Look at the run that so-and-so is on, the Lakers, the Yankees.  You reflect back on it with a much different perspective.  I guess in time people will reflect back on what we've done with the four and a potential fifth,” Johnson said.

For Kevin Harvick, many fans see him as the link to the days of Dale Earnhardt’s dominance. The tragic circumstances that put him in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 29 Chevy have often been overlooked in recent years, but as he gets closer to returning a Sprint Cup title to RCR, those memories come rushing back.

“It just seems like, you know, we've been through so much together,” said Harvick of his partnership with Richard Childress.

“It all has worked backwards for me with coming in, with taking over Dale's car.  You started with the biggest press conference you'll ever be a part of in your whole life.  You start with the weight of the world on your shoulders.  As it's gone through the years, it's gotten easier.  It's almost like you've gotten prepared for these situations before you even got started.”

While Hamlin hails from traditional NASCAR country in Virginia, Johnson and Harvick represent the growth in the sport across the country.

Johnson grew up in El Cajon, CA and cut his teeth racing motorcycles and off road trucks.

Harvick comes from one of open wheel racing’s strongholds in Bakersfield. Before Harvick, when you thought of Bakersfield in a racing context, you thought of Rick Mears.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
To the disdain of some, Jimmie Johnson is in pursuit of his fifth straight title.

So much has changed in a decade.

2001 took away one of the sport’s icons in Dale Earnhardt, 2004 brought us the Chase and 2007 brought us the Car of Tomorrow and a foreign automaker to NASCAR.

All four moments have permanently changed the landscape and the nature of this sport.

When the checkered flag flies on this decade at the Ford 400 Sunday night, it will close out a decade filled with the spectrum of emotion.

Dale Earnhardt’s passing brought us tragedy, the Chase brought us suspense, the CoT brought unpredictability and for some Toyota brought disdain or rebirth (depending on whom you ask).

Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick all are little tiles in the large mosaic that is NASCAR’s history.

The part of the mosaic that represents this decade is colorful indeed.

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