Commentary

Chase for the Cup too close to call

Updated: November 20, 2010, 4:30 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- We're on pit road, not far from where the sterling silver Sprint Cup trophy will be hoisted as the sun sets on Homestead-Miami Speedway late Sunday afternoon, for an informal survey on who will take home the championship hardware in the most exciting Chase ever.

Will it be Denny Hamlin, who has a 15-point lead and the confidence that he can win his first championship?

Will it be four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, attempting to come from behind in the season finale for the first time since he got on this magical roll in 2006?

Will it be Kevin Harvick, who hopes to overcome his 46-point deficit to give Richard Childress Racing its first title since the late Dale Earnhardt in 1994?

Chad Knaus
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesA number of Cup drivers like the chances of four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, right, and crew chief Chad Knaus.

The Las Vegas oddsmakers say it's basically a toss-up, at least between Hamlin and Johnson. Media covering the race seem split between the top two contenders, as well.

Let's see what the drivers are saying on pit road. We start with Carl Edwards, who is coming off his first win in more than two years.

"I can't tell," he said.

Reminded that he picked Johnson a week earlier after winning at Phoenix, Edwards said, "Yeah, but I talked to Denny this morning [Friday] and he seemed loose."

So are you picking Hamlin?

"I'll say Jimmie has the edge, but since Denny has a 15-point edge that nullifies it," Edwards said. "Now if Jimmie had a 15-point lead, I wouldn't think twice. It's a perfect storm."

It really is.

And there is no consensus on who will win any more than there is a consensus on what factor will play the biggest role in deciding this. Some argue it is experience, where Johnson has the biggest edge. Even Johnson has reminded us of that countless times over the past week in his mental warfare with Hamlin, and his relaxed -- almost cocky -- demeanor suggests he could be right.

Others argue it will come down to pure speed unless something goofy occurs. That gives Hamlin an advantage. The No. 11 team consistently has been faster the past month under race conditions even though he hasn't qualified well, which was the case again on Friday when he got the 37th starting spot.

If something out of the ordinary happens, the advantage could go back to Johnson as long as he's not involved, whether it's a wreck, a speeding penalty on pit road or a loose lug nut. Crew chief Chad Knaus has a history of being better than anybody at adjusting to the situation, as was evident last week when he coaxed 88 laps of fuel out of Johnson and his car at Phoenix to make this race tight.

If it comes down to fuel mileage, the advantage definitely goes to Johnson or Harvick. Hamlin was seven to eight laps short last week, forcing him to pit with 14 to go and turn a dominating performance into a 12th-place finish that allowed his competition to remain close.

And Joe Gibbs Racing officials don't believe the mileage will be much better on Sunday.

That it comes down to the three drivers who have combined for almost half of the season's wins -- Hamlin has eight, Johnson six and Harvick three -- is most fitting and gives us hope the race winner could be the championship winner so there aren't two celebrations afterward.

Let's go back to the drivers for a few more opinions ...

"Jimmie," said Scott Speed, putting aside his Toyota loyalties to go with the Chevrolet driver. "He's done it four years in a row. It's just the odds. If I had to put big money on it, I'm putting it on Johnson."

Martin Truex Jr. went with Hamlin, although he wants Harvick to win. Why?

They all three have a legitimate shot at winning this championship, and that is a great thing.

-- Clint Bowyer

"No reason," he said. "I just think Denny's going to win it."

Jamie McMurray, who won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 this year, likes Hamlin's position because he has the lead.

"All he has to do is outrun Jimmie," McMurray said.

Then, like the others polled, he began to waffle.

"I don't know," McMurray continued. "I don't think any of those guys are out of it. I think Kevin certainly could be a spoiler in all that. He's been really consistent. I don't know. If I did I would put a lot of money on it in Vegas, but I don't."

But if you had a lot of money and had to put money on it, where would you put it?

"In the bank," McMurray said. "It's just really hard to pick one because they all have had really good years and any of them are capable of winning on Sunday. So it's just hard to put your finger on which one is going to come out the winner."

It wasn't hard for Clint Bowyer.

"Oh, you have to bet on your teammate," the RCR driver said. "[Kevin's] odds are a little less, but usually they pay better. That is probably the neatest thing about it -- you really can't handicap anybody. They all three have a legitimate shot at winning this championship, and that is a great thing."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. stuck with a teammate as well, and his logic may be the most sound even though his own season hasn't been.

"Jimmie," he said. "He's won four in a row. Why would you pick against him?"

Well, because you can.

That's the beauty of this Chase, the reason chairman Brian France wants to make changes to the playoff format to guarantee every finale has a winner-take-all scenario. In most years, picking the champion is simple because the title has all but been decided. It's anticlimactic.

This one could come down to all three drivers blasting off Turn 4 with the championship in sight. We may not know the winner until we're back near this spot on pit road on the stage where the champion is crowned.

It is, as Edwards said, a perfect storm.

And a perfect way for this season to end.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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