With only 15 points separating the top two drivers, the closest championship in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup's seven-year history won't be won easily. The only way points leader Denny Hamlin can guarantee his first NASCAR Sprint Cup crown is by either finishing second while leading the most laps or winning next Sunday's season finale, the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson, in second, and Kevin Harvick, in third, are the only other drivers still eligible to win the title. Harvick trails Hamlin by 46 points. Hamlin's 15-point lead is the closest margin between first and second in Chase history, bettering the 18-point difference Kurt Busch held over Johnson in 2004. Overall, Hamlin has eight race wins and 14 top-five finishes this season, while Johnson has six wins and 16 top-fives.
Although he was frustrated after losing ground to Johnson yesterday in Phoenix despite having a dominant car for much of the day, Hamlin is upbeat about his Joe Gibbs Toyota team's prospects in Florida.
"The important thing is we have a good car for next week," said Hamlin. "It's going to be our Texas car. So, we know we got a good piece there. This is why we run the races. This is why you can't crown anyone before this thing is over, is because if any kind of strategy or anything goes wrong, it could be the deciding factor in the championship. It's just going to be whoever runs best next week."
Johnson indicated the unfamiliar role of chaser was not uncomfortable for him and his Hendrick Motorsports squad.
"I know what my mindset is and I hope the pressure of us being on his [Hamlin's] heels really works on his mind throughout the course of the week – he and his crew," Johnson said. "Those guys better be on their toes. Not only do they have the 48 to worry about, but they have the 29 and one race winner take all – it's going to be one hell of a show."