11/17/10 — Stevens: Hamlin needs to forget Phoenix, concentrate on final race

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Stevens: Hamlin needs to forget Phoenix, concentrate on final race

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on November 17, 2010 1:47 PM

The 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup has come down to the final race with the championship on the line -- the scenario NASCAR hoped for when it introduced the new format in 2004.

It's also the "winner-take-all" showdown Denny Hamlin was hoping to avoid. Hamlin dominated last Sunday at Phoenix and led 190 of the 312 laps before a late pit stop for fuel proved costly and caused Hamlin to finish 12th.

Hamlin had the opportunity to extend his points lead over four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson to more than 60. Instead, he enters the final race at Homestead on Sunday clinging to a 15-point lead.

After Hamlin's win at Texas two weeks ago, his crew chief Mike Ford didn't mince words.

"I think our race team is better than (Johnson's) race team," said Ford. "And I'm not going to tip-toe around them."

Hamlin appeared to be significantly less confident after letting a chance to put away Johnson slip through his fingers Sunday.

"I felt like we've been the best car over this Chase and we might not win it," said Hamlin on Sunday. "It's tough to not be happy having the point lead going into the last race. But we were sitting pretty."

With the confidence of a four-time champion resonating in his voice, Johnson didn't waste an opportunity at a verbal jab of his own following a fifth-place finish.

"I'm so happy to put pressure on that 11 team," Johnson said. "We're ready to race for this thing. I hope that the pressure really works on his (Hamlin's) mind throughout the rest of the week, him and his crew."

Johnson's points lead has been no smaller than 63 entering the final race of the season during his four-year reign as series champion. He's won 37 races during that four-year stretch. He also brings one of the best crew chiefs, Chad Knaus, in the business to Miami this weekend.

Hamlin has won eight races in 2010. He's earned 14 top-fives and 18 top 10s. None of that matters if Hamlin can't finish the deal on Sunday.

Anything but a championship on Sunday, will at least for 2010, leave Hamlin remembered as the fifth driver to have a nice season, but finish second to Johnson.

Johnson already owns the distinction as the only driver in NASCAR history to win four consecutive championships. Winning a fifth straight title on Sunday would further cement his place among the greatest drivers in the sport's storied history.

Hamlin has 400 miles left to regain his confidence and not lose faith in himself, his team and winning the championship.