Trio of title contenders expect tough Homestead

The 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup has come down to the battle at the beach for Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.

Now that Hamlin’s points lead has shrunk to 15 over Johnson, the tightest margin since the Chase began, he can lock down the title by winning the race or finishing second and leading the most laps if Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet is victorious Sunday night. If Johnson does not win, the scenario shifts.

Harvick remains in the hunt, 46 points behind Hamlin. But “Happy” will need the two teams ahead of him to falter big time to have a shot at this year’s championship.

While the drivers are well aware of the challenges, it’s likely their crew chiefs, who will suffer through sleepless nights between now and Sunday, will feel the pressure the most.

Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford, who was more publicly outspoken after the team’s Texas win two weeks ago than he had been during all of his years in racing, watched his luck change dramatically at Phoenix International Raceway this past weekend when cautions didn‘t fall as predicted.

Hamlin, who had a dominant car and led the most laps (190) at PIR, didn’t have enough fuel to finish the race in the lead pack as the race went caution free for the last 73 laps. In the final 15 laps, Hamlin dropped from second when he pitted for fuel to finish an eventual 12th — behind Johnson and Harvick, who finished fifth and sixth, respectively.

“When you’re leading, you’re in a vulnerable situation,” Ford said. “It was just one of those (situations) where the cautions fell at the wrong time for your race team and you ended up paying a little bit of a penalty, but you still maintain the points lead and they’re going to have to beat you at Homestead.

“Coming into this race, we stated that if we maintained (their course) and still maintained the points lead going to Homestead, I like our chances and we’ve still got a 15-point lead and I like our chances.”

And since the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team won the season finale last year, Ford believes the team still has an advantage entering Homestead. Despite how distraught Hamlin appeared after Phoenix, Ford expects his driver to come back fighting. But it will take an entire team effort to outwit Team 48 crew chief Chad Knaus and outrun Johnson.

“It’s pretty straight forward: You go down there and you go for a win,” Ford said. “We’ve run well there, we won the last time there and just came off of a mile-and-a-half win there last week, so very confident in our package.

“It’s going to be an exciting, close race. It’s one of those races where it comes down to the end and you’re going to have to make the right decision.”

With Knaus’ controversial move of swapping pit crews with the No. 24 team of Jeff Gordon at Texas, most of the drama is behind the defending champions. Knaus felt the new crew did “a good job” and believes that overall the change will create a new “energy from the 48 team that you haven’t seen in a while.”

However, in the four straight seasons the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports crew has won the title, Knaus’ game plan has never involved coming from behind. Consequently, Knaus’ strategy going into the finale has never included winning at Homestead.

The team has always had the luxury of stroking it to the end, and that won’t be the case Sunday. Although Johnson finished second in 2004, since he began racing for the title in the final race, his best finish is fifth.

When the 48 team was tested at Phoenix, having to conserve fuel to finish the race, Johnson pulled it out again.

“We were only a half a lap short based on the fuel numbers that we had and so we were pretty good at that point,” Knaus said. “When that caution came out, I felt pretty confident we were going to make it. As soon as the No. 11 pitted, we really backed him down just to make sure and it turned out great.”

Knaus admitted he was nervous until “about five laps to go” because at that point the team was committed to finish. He trusted his fuel-mileage data and had faith in Johnson to conserve. Asked whether Knaus believed the championship was on the line Sunday, he confidently replied, "It’s on the line every day."

Gil Martin, crew chief of the No. 29 RCR Chevrolet, ran for championships with Harvick in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and knows the drill. While the team topped the Cup points standings in the regular season, Martin knows the only points that count are the ones that will be tallied after Homestead.

When Martin was asked to compare his crew to the Nos. 48 and 11, he did not mince words, "I think we’re better than both of them."

Like Knaus, Martin also switched pit crews hoping to improve the squad for the Chase, though he made his move earlier. Despite a miscue in the pits Sunday when the front tire changer missed a lugnut, the team recovered quickly and salvaged a sixth-place finish.

“It didn’t faze them; it won’t faze them next week,” Martin said. “All it will make them do is be better next week."

Martin knows Harvick runs well at Homestead. In nine starts he has completed every lap and finished in the top five in three of the past four races. But Martin is still coming prepared with a new car for this weekend. He knows the competition is fierce and expected the title would come down to the wire.

"Because all three of these teams are that good,” Martin said. “It is going to take a mistake. It is going to take a flat tire or something like that to make something happen. I think next week it is going to be every man for himself. It will probably be wild next week. I’m looking forward to it."