Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A New Champion?

I picked Jimmie Johnson to win his fifth straight Sprint Cup Series championship before the Chase started back in September, and that still looks like a really good choice, even as Johnson sits 15 points behind Denny Hamlin heading into this weekend's finale at Homestead-Miami.

Part of me wants to stick with that prediction. But the more I think about this, the more convinced I am that Hamlin will hoist the trophy Sunday evening, not Johnson or Kevin Harvick.

Spare me the argument that Hamlin blew it last weekend in Phoenix, how fuel strategy would ultimately cost him the championship. First of all, Hamlin still holds the points lead after his 12th-place finish in the desert. Secondly, I don't buy the argument that Hamlin lost his cool in a very un-champion-like fashion afterward, tossing a water bottle at his car before expressing his disappointment in the post-race interview.

It was the heat of the moment. Hamlin had the day's best car -- leading a race-high 190 laps -- and would've finished first or second to pad his points lead had fuel not been an issue. I guarantee you'd be peeved if that had been you.

The reason I feel better about Hamlin with each passing day is two-fold: momentum and fast cars.

Yes, it really is that simple.

Hamlin has momentum on his side, as planned. Since Martinsville, Hamlin has turned up the proverbial wick, winning at Martinsville and Texas, while surviving Talladega and dominating Phoenix before being bitten by strategy. His 12th-place effort at Phoenix was Hamlin's worst of the Chase, and Hamlin is the defending winner at Homestead.

Also, Hamlin's cars this season have been fast. Not just as Martinsville or Pocono or Richmond; he's been fast at plate tracks and intermediate tracks. Wins at Texas, Darlington and Michigan expanded Hamlin's resume, and in recent weeks, Hamlin's cars have been faster than Johnson's or Harvick's.

So when you have a fast car and a good pit crew -- one you didn't swap for just two weeks ago -- and a game plan that you've stuck with, even as Johnson dominated Dover and ripped off top-5 after top-5, you feel pretty good being up 15 points heading into the finale.

No doubt Hamlin will have to be on his game on Sunday to beat Johnson and Harvick. But Hamlin has been on his game all season, even in the immediate aftermath of ACL surgery. When he came to Phoenix in April, just 10 days after surgery, Hamlin struggled with an ill-handling race car that had also been damaged, while also dealing with horrible pain in his knee.

But Hamlin never called for a relief driver. He toughed it out at Phoenix, showing his team his commitment to this season. The following week, Hamlin won at Texas.

Everyone likes to talk about how Johnson bounces back from adversity and steps up when it matters most, but that's exactly what Hamlin has done this season. Adversity and poor finishes that would've doomed the No. 11 team in years past haven't this year; Hamlin simply bounces back and lets the on-track results speak for themselves.

I've yet to see anything to tell me this time will be different. I look for Hamlin to not only take the championship this weekend, but I wouldn't be surprised if he does so in Victory Lane.

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