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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – In a battle of experience with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin looks like an 18-year-old who can't find his way to freshmen orientation. In a battle of wits with Kevin Harvick, Hamlin is Teller to Harvick's Penn.
Yet, in Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which will determine who wins the 2010 Sprint Cup championship, they – Johnson and Harvick – will be chasing Hamlin. This comes as no surprise to Hamlin, who for the past year has been telling anyone who will listen that he's going to be the one to unseat the seemingly unseatable Johnson.
This isn't Hamlin being boastful. It's just the opposite, really. It's just what he expects of himself, and he doesn't mind that everyone knows it.
He wants Johnson to know that he's gunning for him, which is why Hamlin has showed up at Johnson's victory party every year to buy him a bottle of champagne, then tells him he looks forward to the day Johnson has to return the favor. He wants his team to know that he's all in, which is why 10 days after reconstructive knee surgery he stayed in his car at Phoenix despite running several laps down.
But while Hamlin certainly talks the talk – "I feel like talent-wise, I'm as good as anyone on the race track," he said in February – he understands that if he's going to do so, he still has to walk the walk. And to this point, he has.
He won more races than anyone this season (eight to Johnson's six), one of which came three weeks after knee surgery. He didn't fold under the pressure after Johnson took the lead from him in the Chase. And now he's done something Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin couldn't do over the last four years – he's wrestled the points lead from Johnson, in the most competitive Chase ever mind you, heading into the season finale.
"For me, I'm in a good situation because, like I said before, if I go out there and I do what we've done all year and perform really well, then it's up to them to go out there and better us," said Hamlin, who holds a 15-point lead over Johnson, 46 over Harvick. "We don't have to beat one of these guys by a certain amount of positions. We just have to stay ahead and that's it."
The clinch scenarios are plenty, but essentially it boils down to this: Hamlin needs to finish within three or four spots of Johnson, and eight or nine spots of Harvick.
In the days leading up to the finale, Hamlin has been asked over and over about his mental state. Is he over the frustration of having his lead cut in half after the fuel debacle at Phoenix? Is he feeling the pressure of having the four-time defending champ breathing down his neck? Is he losing sleep?
The last question was essentially posed by Johnson, who continuously needled Hamlin during Thursday's press conference. "This guy [has everything to lose]," Johnson said, pointing to Hamlin. Johnson continued that theme on Friday, saying, "I slept great. I don't know if Denny did, but I know I did."
When told of Johnson's comment, Hamlin, having heard enough, shot back.
"I'll say if he keeps bringing up my name, he's pretty much worried about me. That's all I'll say," Hamlin said. "You're not gonna say you're not worried and you're relaxed and everything but keep bringing up my name."
Hamlin, who turned 30 on Thursday, has never been afraid to speak his mind, especially when it comes to how NASCAR works. While at times he's been right, he's always sounded sort of small – as though he's speaking out of turn, be it because he's too young, too inexperienced or too unaccomplished to carry much sway.
But in calling out Johnson, Hamlin seems to have grown up. He's not someone you can pick on. He's not just some wallflower. He's a man of his word, and his word is this: "Anything can decide the championship. It could be wrecks. It could be luck. It could be strategy. Any of those things. The one thing that's tough to get is speed. I feel like we have good speed."
Come Sunday, that's what's going to matter most.