All the talk about who will win this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship seems to be revolving around Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano. Meanwhile when it comes to controversy, it's Ryan Newman who is as the centre of heated discussions. And that means that of all the final four still in the running for this year's title, Denny Hamlin is the one who is currently able to continue flying under the radar.
"Nobody expected us to be here, so we can go to Miami with no pressure, have fun and try to win the championship," said Hamlin on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, after battling back from going a lap down twice during the race to secure a fifth place at the chequered flag. It had been what he needed to top the points standings at the end of the Eliminator 8 Round of this year's new-look Chase play-offs.
That remarkable recovery drive means that Hamlin will line up alongside Harvick, Logano and Newman as the final four drivers still able to win the championship at this weekend's winner-take-all decider at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"We're going to be the underdogs going up against the #22 and the #4 and the #31, but I can tell you there is no giving up," Hamlin said. "[Phoenix] is a prime example - look at where we finished after just battling and battling back. Proud of my team. This is redemption and hopefully we're able to capitalise [at Homestead.]"
"It feels so good to be in," contributed Hamlin's crew chief Darian Grubb. "We're glad it's over and we were able to make it in there. We had a really good test at Homestead and we won there last year. Feel like we have a lot of confidence going into there so we're going to go in and fight, fight, fight."
Grubb was previously in charge of Tony Stewart's championship-winning season in 2011 at Stewart-Haas Racing, but despite helping the team co-owner to a third title he was then promptly let go by SHR at the end of the season. He moved to Joe Gibbs Racing where he was paired up with Hamlin, but the irony is that JGR is thought to be planning a team reorganisation over the winter and Grubb might be moved to a different driver next season, even if he were to successfully engineer a maiden championship for Hamlin.
It might not look as though Hamlin realistically stands much of a chance of clinching that title, especially compared to Harvick and Logano in particular. Hamlinhas won just once all year (in the spring at Talladega) compared with four wins for Harvick and five for Logano. However he's also picked up seven top fives, 17 top tens and three pole positions over the course of the season to date, and his average race finish of 14.5 is not all that far off those of his rivals (Logano is best with 11.2).
“Our team has done a good job of grinding our way through this," Hamlin said. "We've got some good to average finishes throughout this, we haven't beat ourselves with bad finishes and it's kept us in it," he pointed out, adding: "Now we have an opportunity to, if we hit on something [that works] in Homestead, we could win a championship."
Hamlin does have one advantage that the others don't: he's won here before, and none of the other three have. In fact he's the defending race champion at Homestead after finding his way to victory lane this time last year, having previously claimed a maiden victory at the 1.5-mile intermediate track in 2009. Hamlin also tops the remaining contenders with a 11.2 average finish in nine races at Homestead, with 163 laps led.
"We were a lot less competitive at the end of last year, and we popped up and won that race," Hamlin pointed out. "I told you all before the Chase started that I feel better about winning Homestead than Martinsville and after the test we had there [in October] I still believe that. I'm ready to go."
That sort of consistent edge over his remaining title rivals at Homestead could well prove decisive, because all Hamlin has to do this weekend is finish ahead of the other three. It doesn't matter what position he ends up crossing the line in, as long as the others are behind him. So far this season Harvick has finished in front of them 11 times, Logano ten times and Hamlin on eight occasions. Newman has beaten the others to the line in only six outings.
Hamlin also has considerable experience of competing in the play-offs in the past: he made the Chase in his first seven full-time seasons and was only interrupted in 2013 only because an accident at Fontana left him with a back injury that forced him to sit out several races, leaving him too far behind in the points to make the cut. He was runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in 2010, stumbling only at the last minute with an unfortunate late pit stop call at Phoenix which handed Johnson the chance to take the title.
"I've been in this position before and nerves aren't going to be an issue,” said Hamlin. "I've done this tons of times, be part of a championship picture when it gets down to it."
That said, the new format for this year's Chase means everything is fundamentally different this year: "I've had a one in three shot before in 2010, but this is so different with this format," he admitted.
"You know you're up against three other guys and whoever comes out on top is going to be our champ," he added. "My job is just to do whatever is in front of me at that point, and that's what I feel like I've learned throughout the years of being in these kind of championship pictures."
Hamlin might appear to be a dark horse for this weekend's title decider, but he's an awfully fast runner with considerable pedigree. If he were to win this weekend then no one should really be all that shocked; and it would be a really nice way for him to celebrate his 34th birthday next Tuesday if he did manage to pull it off.
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