Chase leader Denny Hamlin believes reigning champion Jimmie Johnson is still the favorite to win this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver won the final event heading into the championship play-off, which was his sixth victory of the year, and beat Johnson to the top spot of the standings for the deciding final 10 races.
Last year, Hamlin was one of the strongest drivers in the Chase, taking top three finishes – including two wins – in six out of the 10 events. However, two engine failures and a crash caused him three non-finishes that ruined his chances of contending for the title in the season finale.
Despite the likes of four-time champion Jeff Gordon picking the 29-year-old as favorite to beat Johnson, Hamlin does not think he is the target rivals will be aiming at from Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"The 48 [Johnson] is definitely the favorite, with the 29 [Kevin Harvick] right behind him, in my eyes," said Hamlin. "One has shown the consistency to win the championship this year and the other has shown that when it comes to game time, he is ready to play. In my eyes, we haven't won one yet. We're 0-for-4, so it's time for us to step up."
However Hamlin does not deny that this season is probably his best chance ever to win his first NASCAR title. Besides Johnson, Hamlin is the only driver who has been in the Chase in every championship he has entered since the format was implemented.
"We set up our team at the beginning of the year to bring out our best race cars in September and late August and we've done that," said Hamlin. "The last three weeks, and including this week, our car has speed, and that goes a long way. It makes the drivers look good. It makes everything look good because you've executed a game plan and I feel like we've done that. The wins in the first part of the season, to me, were almost flukey in the sense that we didn't expect it and circumstances worked out and we won a bunch of races. But, we didn't have our best stuff at the race track.
"This is the point where we see where we stack up with our competition over the next few weeks and from what I've seen over the last couple of weeks, it looks like our stuff is going to be pretty competitive."
Hamlin, who was affected by an injured knee due to a torn ligament at the beginning of the year, has shown great speed at all kinds of tracks this season, taking wins on both short and intermediate ovals.
Two of his six wins this year came at Martinsville and Fontana, tracks that he will visit once again during the Chase. He also dominated at Atlanta two weeks ago until an engine failure put him out of the race.
"I think the biggest thing is we're competitive everywhere, competitive as in we can win races anywhere," Hamlin said. "We've shown we can win races and that means we've been up front a lot during the course of this season. For as many wins as we've had, we've had second- and third-place finishes as well. That means we've been up front a lot during the season and that's what it's going to take to win the championship – a low average finish and making sure you have everything in line and prepared in case something does happen.
"Even if you have a bad race or two, if you consistently run in the top two to three positions every week and put yourself out there to possibly win a lot of races, I think you'll be a contender."
Hamlin's best finish in the Sprint Cup came in his rookie season, when he was third in the final standings.