One weekend. One title. Three drivers.
Those six words summarize Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the 2010 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season — ends.
Only 46 points separate the top three Chase contenders — the drivers eligible to be crowned champion. Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota) leads the standings, by 15 points over second-place Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) and 46 points over third-place Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/ Pennzoil Chevrolet).
That 15-point spread between first and second is the closest with one to go in the Chase’s seven-year history. It’s third-closest overall since the current points system took effect in 1975.
None of it is a surprise. Hamlin, Johnson or Harvick have led the standings in 34 of the 35 weeks to date. And Hamlin — the Chase’s top seed and the series-leader in wins (eight) — is the catbird. He wins his first title with a victory on Sunday or by finishing second and leading the most laps. That’s regardless of Johnson’s and Harvick’s performances.
Hamlin also is the defending winner of Sunday’s event, and has three top fives and a Driver Rating of 94.7 in five starts at Homestead-Miami.
Johnson, the reigning and four-time series champion, knows the pressure-cooker best. But his title path isn’t quite so straight. Even if he wins Sunday, he’ll need help. And it won’t come from history. Since 1975 (again, the institution of the current points system), only two drivers have overcome a deficit in the season finale to win a title — Richard Petty in 1979 and Alan Kulwicki in 1992. Petty trailed Darrell Waltrip by two points in ‘79 and Kulwicki trailed Davey Allison by 30 points in ‘94.
A six-time winner in 2010, Johnson led the Chase after five of the nine Chase races. He had entered the season finale as the leader in his four previous title years and has six top 10s in nine Homestead-Miami starts.
Harvick has more points work to do to win his first series title. But statistics are in his corner. No NASCAR Sprint Cup driver has logged more top 10s (25) or led the standings longer (after 20 of the first 26 races). Harvick’s Homestead-Miami statistics also are the best among the three contenders — four top fives, seven top 10s, a 101.1 Driver Rating and an average finish of 8.4.
Regardless of title hopes, Harvick will guarantee his best career points finish. His previous best, fourth, came in 2006 and ‘08.
The three title-contending crew chiefs and team owners also could make history.
Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford, and Harvick’s crew chief, Gil Martin, would win their first series titles. Ford has two Homestead-Miami race wins, with Bill Elliott in 2001 and last year with Hamlin.
If Johnson wins the series title, it would be crew chief Chad Knaus’ fifth title, which would place him second among all-time championship-winning crew chiefs. Dale Inman leads with eight titles. Knaus is tied for second with Kirk Shelmerdine; both have four titles.
If Hamlin prevails, the 2010 title would be Joe Gibbs Racing’s fourth series title — with three different drivers. Joe Gibbs would be the second team owner to accomplish that feat. Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports was the first. Gibbs won the 2000 series title with Bobby Labonte and the 2002 and ’05 titles with Tony Stewart.
If Johnson wins, Hendrick would win his 10th series owner title, breaking a tie with Petty Enterprises, which has nine, for the most NASCAR Sprint Cup owner titles.
If Harvick wins, Richard Childress Racing owner Richard Childress would win his seventh series owner title and his first since 1994, with Dale Earnhardt. It also would be his 12th national-series owner title, which would tie him with Hendrick for the most all-time.