Bill Fleischman: Showdown in Miami for Chase championship

Posted: November 18, 2010

'WE'RE NOT intending on playing any defense. We're going to throw the long ball all day long."

So said Gil Martin, crew chief for Kevin Harvick.

That's the Chase spirit.

It's three for the show in Sunday's Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With Denny Hamlin leading four-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson by only 15 points, it's the closest points difference with one race remaining in the Chase for the Championship's 7 years. Harvick, 46 points behind Hamlin, is the only other Chase driver in contention for the title.

Hamlin finished 13th at Homestead in 2008, first last year; Johnson was 15th in 2008, fifth in '09; Harvick finished second in 2008 and third last year.

In the 4 years Johnson won his championships, he was leading the Chase each time before Homestead, so he never had to race to win, only for position to preserve his advantage.

Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief for all four title runs, said on a Tuesday conference call that Hendrick Motorsports' No. 48 team's new "chasing" attitude is his biggest concern.

"We haven't gone to Homestead to truly race yet," Knaus said. "We've gone there with a bit of a protective mindset, so I think that puts us a little behind compared to [Hamlin and Harvick]."

Mind games among the top three teams are big this week, as proved when Knaus said, "The pressure lies on the guys on [Hamlin's team] because they're in a protective situation, where they have to be cognizant of what we're doing and what [Harvick's team] is doing."

Asked what Johnson does better than Hamlin and Harvick, Knaus replied, "I think Jimmie ultimately is a better race-car driver than both of [them]. I'm not saying he's always going to beat them, but week in and week out, Jimmie does a better job of racing than the other guys."

Martin has little use for mind games or trash-talking.

"I think it's a waste of time to do a lot of smack talking with the [Johnson's No. 48 team]," he said, "[because] they have been in this position many times."

Referring to Harvick, an amused Martin added, "I'm surprised that we have stayed out of it, because we're usually in the middle of most of this stuff."

Since the top three Chasers drive for top NASCAR teams, we can expect teammates to do all they can for the three. Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are in the Hendrick stable with Johnson. Harvick's Richard Childress Racing teammates are Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer.

"It's going to be a big factor," Martin said. "I don't think anybody is going to intentionally wreck anybody, but I don't think anybody is going to do anybody any favors as far as moving over and letting a guy go."

Johnson's 15-point deficit doesn't sound like much, but surely he knows that, since 1975, only two drivers have overtaken the leader in the final race. Richard Petty won in '79 after trailing Waltrip by two points, and Alan Kulwicki wiped out Davey Allison's 30-point lead in '92.

Summarizing what Johnson and Harvick need to do Sunday, Knaus said, "We just have to go down there and go fast."

Describing the best Chase finish, Joe Gibbs said yesterday, "This is big-time motorsports, with three heavyweight teams from three different organizations. I'll be surprised if any of the three go down easy."

Hessert keeps on truckin'

South Jersey's Tom Hessert will be at Homestead for his second Camping World Truck Series race tomorrow night. Hessert, from Cherry Hill, finished 31st Friday night in his trucks debut at Phoenix. Driving the No. 9 Toyota, Hessert was involved in a collision.

"[Ricky] Carmichael spun in front of us and we got pushed into the pile by somebody else," Hessert said. "We didn't run too great, but we were in line for a decent finish."

Chasers Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch finished one-two in the Phoenix trucks race.

Runner-up in this year's ARCA series, Hessert wants a full-time trucks ride next year. *

Send e-mail to fleiscb@phillynews.com.

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