In 2010 he was thisclose to winning his first title. Heading into the season finale in Homestead, Fla., Hamlin held a 15-point lead. Then, following contact with Greg Biffle that dropped him far back in the field, he placed 14th in the race. Final figures: Hamlin was runner-up to Johnson, who finished second, by 39 points.
Even though that was his fifth Chase experience, Hamlin succumbed to the pressure. Now, he's 31 years old and has Darian Grubb as his crew chief. Grubb guided Stewart to last year's title.
The problem with picking Hamlin is, he's the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver in the Chase. Hamlin must contend with the four-team Hendrick Motorsports armada.
Therefore, I'm going with . . . Ta- da! Johnson. He's baaaccck!
Johnson has won three races and is seeded second in the Chase. Having Hendrick equipment and resources are a huge advantage for Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet team. Johnson's 2006-10 domination proves he's masterful on the track. Plus, his crew chief Chad Knaus guided him to his record five consecutive championships. Knaus has far more Chase experience than any other Chase crew chief.
Kasey Kahne, a wild-card entrant in this year's Chase, is aware teammate Johnson will be a formidable rival.
"From past experience the [No.] 48 has to be one of the favorites," Kahne said Tuesday during a Philadelphia visit promoting the third Chase race Sept. 30 at Dover International Speedway. "Denny's been as strong as anyone lately and Brad Keselowski's been as consistent as anyone. I think those three you have to really look at as the favorites."
Preparing for his third Chase, Kahne said in the first two Chases "I made a couple of mistakes and the cars weren't quite as strong as what they are now. Hopefully, I've learned from some of those mistakes."
Asked if he'll race the same in the Chase as he did in the first 26 when he won two races, Kahne replied, "I'll try to be about the same as I've been. This year I've been as consistent as I've ever been, but I've also been aggressive."
It's stunning that racers as talented as Kyle Busch and Edwards didn't qualify for the Chase. Their absence shows how competitive the Sprint Cup series is.
As skilled as Busch (24 career Cup wins) and Edwards (19) are, this year Busch only won one race. Edwards, runner-up to Stewart last year, went winless. Busch had eight finishes of 23rd or lower in the season's first 26 races. Adios, Chase chances . . .
For those who didn't clip-and-save, in our season preview way back in February I correctly picked 10 of the 12 Chasers. I missed on Busch and Edwards.
More support for leader
Before we get caught up in the Chase, here's another pitch for the points leader after 26 races receiving more for his efforts. For all of Denny Hamlin's success this year, he has just a three-point edge entering the 10-race tournament.
Greg Biffle led the points for 14 of the first 25 weeks. His reward? He's the fifth Chase seed. Biffle and many others believe the points leader during the regular season should be rewarded more.
"I am going to have a biased opinion," Biffle said, "but a really truly unbiased opinion is that if you ask any driver [they'll say] it is very difficult to lead these points. To be where you are in the points and to say that we don't care what you have done in the first 26 races - we don't care how solid a team you are and you get no reward other than winning going into the Chase - that is a little undeserving of our sport. Reward for the wins but [there should be] a minor reward for being where you are at in the points."
Contact Bill Fleischman at firstname.lastname@example.org.