Denny Hamlin has Jimmie Johnson right where he wants him.
"Frankly, I feel like he's in our sights," Hamlin said after running fourth in Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The top-five finish was Hamlin's first in 11 starts at the 1.5-mile track.
Hamlin showed his mettle in the fifth race of the Chase. On Lap 2, as Ryan Newman spun in Turn 2, Hamlin mashed the brakes on the No. 11 Toyota and flat-spotted his tires. Hamlin restarted from the rear and patiently worked his way forward.
Johnson did Hamlin one better. On Lap 23, he lost control of his No. 48 Chevrolet and spun in Turn 2. Johnson managed to keep his car away from the wall and soldiered on. By the end of the race he was third, with Hamlin in his mirror.
The net effect was a five-point gain for Johnson, the Sprint Cup Series' four-time defending champion. Halfway through the Chase, he leads Hamlin by 41 points. Kevin Harvick, 77 points back in third, is the only other driver within 156 points of the leader.
In the final five races, Hamlin expects to find another gear as he chases Johnson. For the first half of the Chase, he has been deliberately conservative.
"He's a champion, and I'm not," Hamlin said. "He's figured this stuff out, and he's got a great team, as well as we do, but I haven't hit the 'go' button yet, and I feel like there's still more left with our team. I'm minimizing my risk right now, and I feel like, if I'm going to have a shot to win this thing when we get to Homestead [the season finale], I've got to minimize those risks.
"I can't be sticking it three-wide on restarts and things like that. People do -- and I don't. I take a little more conservative approach, and it cost me five points here and there every couple of races, but the main thing is that I'm not racing my way out of this thing these first five races."
Racing his way out of it is exactly what Hamlin did last year. He was a factor in 2009 until he wrecked in the fourth Chase race, at Fontana, and blew an engine the next week at Charlotte. Two wins in the final five races couldn't make up for those failures.
This year, Hamlin seems to have found the formula for staying competitive in the Chase, but can he find the key to winning it?
"[Johnson's] going to do what he's going to do and run up front," Hamlin said. "We just have to do what we have to do and try to win races."
In order to win his first title, however, Hamlin has to beat the man and the mojo. Once the Chase starts, Johnson seems to live a charmed life.
In the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May, Johnson spun off Turn 2, scraped the wall and finished 37th. On Saturday, Johnson spun in the same corner, missed the wall and finished third.
Hamlin is well aware the Chase is Johnson's milieu, but he's prepared to mount a well-thought, methodical challenge of his own.
What remains to be seen is whether even Hamlin's best effort will be enough.