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Mind games can wreak havoc on Chasers

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

Mind games were discussed Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway – who's best at playing them and who lets who get inside their heads – when Kevin Harvick let this tidbit loose:

"I knew sitting on the stage last year that the 11 [Denny Hamlin] wasn't going to win a championship because he couldn't hardly sit still and was so nervous going into that race that he couldn't hardly stand it."

Harvick was referring to a press conference prior to last year's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. You'll recall heading into the final race of 2010, Hamlin had a 15-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and a 46-point lead over Harvick.

In a Miami-area hotel three days before the race, Hamlin sat on a dais flanked by Johnson to his right, Harvick to his left. Johnson, having sat at this same table the four years prior, fielded questions with ease, as did Harvick, who unleashed his usual mixture of sarcasm and wit.

But Hamlin, perhaps feeling outmatched behind a microphone, was a ball of nerves. His legs twitched, he stumbled to answer questions and midway through admitted, "This has been the most awkward 30 minutes I've been through."

That's all Johnson and Harvick needed to hear, and the mind games began. Asked if he felt as awkward as Hamlin, Harvick responded, "He definitely seems like the most nervous." Later, when asked about the pressure of the Chase, Johnson said all the pressure was on Hamlin, and later went to great length describing how the pressure gets to you, especially "when you go to bed at night."

Twenty-four hours later, Hamlin qualified a season-low 37th. On Sunday, he spun early in the race as he tried to work his way toward the front, wound up finishing 14th to Johnson's second and lost the championship by 39 points.

"I could see it," Harvick said Friday of Hamlin's nerves. "Jimmie was gouging at it. I just sat back and watched."

Hamlin won't have to worry about managing nerves this season; his title hopes have been unofficially over for at least two weeks. But what about the seven drivers not named Jimmie Johnson who remain in title contention?

Carl Edwards: He's been there before, having gone toe-to-toe with Johnson in 2008. That year, Edwards finished the Chase by going third, first, first, fourth and first, giving the impression that he is immune to pressure. However, consider that's the season he sparked a massive wreck at Talladega (when he was smack dab in the middle of the title hunt), had an electrical issue at Charlotte and sat 168 points back of Johnson with five races to go. Yes, he finished strong, but being so far back meant the pressure was never on Edwards like it was Hamlin last year.

• Harvick: Nothing seems to faze Harvick, who finished third in last year's season finale.

Brad Keselowski: The fact that he's never been in the Chase could actually work in Keselowski's favor. He's already far exceeded expectations this season. Anything else is a bonus. Plus, there's this: Hamlin finished third as a Chase rookie in 2006; Clint Bowyer third as a Chase rookie in 2007.

Matt Kenseth: He's called "Matty Ice" for a reason. Plus, he's won a title before. Mind games don't work with Kenseth.

Kurt Busch: If it comes down to Kurt vs. Jimmie, I'll take Jimmie in the mind-games department. If you're constantly talking about how a rival isn't in your head, then he's in your head, and Johnson is in Busch's head.

Tony Stewart: The only person who gets inside Stewart's head is Stewart. His downfall will be speed, not head games.

Kyle Busch: Enough people have taken jabs (figuratively and literally) at Busch that if mind games were to impact him, they would have by now. Either because he's impervious to off-track distractions or has had to battle enough of them for so long, Busch's record indicates an ability to do so as he gets behind the wheel.

What's interesting is that going into last year's finale, the question was if Johnson could withstand the pressure of a close title race. In his four-year reign to that point, Johnson had never trailed heading to Homestead-Miami Speedway, holding leads of 63, 86, 141 and 108 points.

"The thing that he does is he puts himself in a position to win and he doesn't take himself out of the championship – ever," Edwards said of Johnson on Friday.

It wasn't until last year that Johnson even had to think about playing mind games. He'd been on cruise control the four years prior and may be again this year if Edwards, Harvick and the like can't hang with him. If they can, Hamlin has some advice for them, especially the first timers.

"Once you get into the final couple races, the guys that are contenders who are in that position for the first time, it will be harder for them to succeed because they're going to put more emphasis on those particular events," Hamlin said Friday. "I think that you gotta be a little bit more relaxed; gotta have a little bit more fun with the whole process – with the situation you're in. Unfortunately, what I know this year I can't apply it because I'm not a part of the championship Chase."