NASCAR's three championship contenders shared a stage on Thursday afternoon for a press conference, and what began as a lovefest turned into some borderline-uncomfortable theater and a revealing look at the psyches of Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.
Two exchanges will serve to tell the whole story. When asked about whether he was nervous going into the race, Johnson calmly replied, "We've got nothing to lose." He then turned to look at Hamlin. "This guy does." Awkward silence followed.
A few minutes later, with the "boys, have at it" mantra floating through the air, Hamlin was asked how far he'd go to win the championship. "To say I'd wreck a guy or turn a guy to win a championship?" he replied. "I'm not sure how high I could hold that trophy." Harvick, in turn, indicated that he would do whatever he had to do to win, and deal with the consequences later.
That, in a nutshell, is the entire story of this press conference. Body language told the tale -- Johnson was relaxed and confident, Harvick was the kid sitting in the back of the classroom lobbing one-liners and caring about nothing at all, and Denny Hamlin sat leaned forward, arms folded in front of him. (Shoot, just look at the different angles Johnson and Hamlin have toward the trophy in that photo above.)
There were a few good jabs -- Harvick doesn't much like Mike Ford, for instance, and both the 48 and the 29 hoped that Hamlin would have rotten gas mileage again -- and some good revelations, like the fact that Hamlin punched his dashboard so hard after Phoenix that he bloodied his knuckles.
The word "mindset" is the most overused in 21st-century journalism, a lazy way of getting inside athletes' heads. (If you're drinking and someone asks a driver about his "mindset," you have to finish your beer. It's the law.) Even so, "mindset" is the story of the day today. Based on what we saw at Thursday's press conference, this is a two-man race ... but not the two that Denny Hamlin would like.