NOTES FROM THE NASCAR NATION: Three drivers, 267 laps and one trophy

The drama of the Chase will hit its zenith point this Sunday afternoon with the running of the Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Three drivers will battle it out for 267 laps for NASCAR’s grand prize: the 2010 Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship trophy. With only 46 points separating the Chase contenders, there is a ton of pre race anticipation that says the Ford 400 could turn into a winner take all shoot out to the checkers.

[media-credit name=”CIA Stock Photo” align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]THE STORY BREAKDOWN

All eyes will be on Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick next Sunday afternoon. We will carefully monitor their progress lap after lap. Every time one member of the Chase trio has a change in track position you can expect to see a graphic from ESPN2 informing us how that change impacted the Chase numbers.

Denny Hamlin, and his #11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is at the forefront of the Chase shootout with a 15 point lead over Johnson and a 46 point advantage over Harvick. Mathematically speaking, there are two possible ways for Hamlin to clinch the Chase. The first is rather obvious: win the race. The second clinch scenario is finish second after leading the most laps in the race.

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Both scenarios are very doable for Hamlin this Sunday. Among the three championship contenders he’s the only one who has won a race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. In fact, he’s the defending race winner from last year after starting 38th. In five starts at this speedway Hamlin also has three top five finishes, three top tens and a healthy average finish ratio of 10.6.

But the one thing that Hamlin really seems to have at this point in time is a sense of razor sharp focus. In recent weeks he has been viewed as being somewhat arrogant but we should not be buying into that. When the green flag falls on the Ford 400 next Sunday a highly focused Hamlin will be concentrating on the job at hand. That razor sharp attention factor could lead to the championship he’s always dreamed of.

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The Homestead-Miami Speedway is one of the few tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit where Jimmie Johnson hasn’t visited victory lane. In nine starts there he’s accumulated three top five finishes, six top tens, an average finish ratio of 12.7 and he’s won the pole position twice.

He of course holds the Sprint Cup Series record for winning four consecutive championships and there are many observers who truly believe that his drive for five campaign could happen this Sunday. It’s that experience he has in winning a championship that could be a major factor this weekend. Johnson fully understands the procedure and is an expert at dealing with the stress levels it presents.

The other outstanding quality this team has is the combination of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus along with their combined ability to display grace under fire. No matter what racing surprise develops, or the intensity level that it creates, this duo seems to calmly address the issue and work their way through it. That’s also the mark of champions.

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Kevin Harvick will also be seeking his first win at Homestead-Miami this Sunday. But in nine starts there he has the best set of numbers among the Chase contenders. That includes five top five finishes, seven top tens and a low average finish ratio of 8.4.

At 46 points out, Harvick will be the driver to watch on Sunday. Expect him to take a very aggressive approach to this race prepared to do whatever’s necessary to launch a charge to the front. Realistically, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by this approach. He put it best himself in recent days when he said “the worst that can happen is we finish third in the Chase.”

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There are many other factors connected to the Ford 400 that could have an impact on the final resolution of the Chase. While the focal point may be on three drivers, we need to remember that there’s going to be 43 starting this race and many of them will have their own team agendas well outside of the Chase profile.

The Homestead-Miami Speedway is the only track on the Sprint Cup circuit that four time champion Jeff Gordon hasn’t won at. Then again, his last win dates back to the fall race in Texas last year. Look for Gordon to pull out all the stops to rectify this situation next Sunday.

After an extremely dismal 2009 season, Richard Childress Racing was thrilled to see all three of their cars in the Chase line up this year. However, despite some very strong efforts, Jeff Burton is the only Childress driver who has yet to find victory lane this season. Look for a very aggressive effort from the 31 team on Sunday.

Kurt Busch certainly has a personal agenda connected to the Ford 400. It’s his farewell race in Penske Racing’s #2 Miller Lite Dodge. Next year Busch will be moving to Penske’s #22 Shell/Penzoil Dodge. Considering the legacy of the blue deuce in NASCAR racing, it’s a safe bet that Busch would love to exit this ride in victory lane.

However Busch has yet another agenda he have to concentrate on this Sunday. He’s currently tenth in the Chase rankings but only five points ahead of Clint Bowyer. Remember, only the top ten gets the coveted stage, and live television, time during next month’s Sprint Cup awards banquet in Busch’s home town of Las Vegas.

No one should make the mistake of overlooking the Ford contingency this Sunday. Ford holds the Homestead-Miami Speedway’s manufacturer’s record with six wins. All six of those wins have been delivered by Roush Fenway Racing with driver Greg Biffle serving up a record high three of them. Carl Edwards has found his fire again and looked very strong en route to his win at Phoenix last weekend. Matt Kenseth has been showing some strength recently as well. Kenseth will be making his 400th Sprint Cup career start Sunday and would love to honor that occasion with his first win of the season.

Let’s also not forget that anytime a corporation is the official race sponsor as well as having ties to individual race teams then the drivers of those teams has a tendency to work even harder to get a win for their sponsor.

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Since the start of the 2010 season, last February 14th at Daytona, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has ran 10,244 laps, 13,777 miles featuring 1,505 starters. Now, during the championship weekend, it all comes down to three drivers, 267 laps and one trophy.

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THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN

Regarding the 2010 Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship, the Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, (WSE), seems to believe that Denny Hamlin can accomplish his great American dream by winning his first NASCAR title. They’re backing that with 1 to 2 odds. The WSE has Jimmie Johnson ranked at 9 to 5 odds to take his fifth consecutive title. Kevin Harvick has been rated at 10 to 1. These WSE numbers are highly significant in the fact that it’s the first time since January that Johnson has not been on top of their list to win the championship.

Regarding their picks for the Ford 400, the WSE has Johnson and Hamlin dead even at 5 to 1 as favorites to win. Carl Edwards is behind them at 6 to 1 followed by Harvick at 7 to 1. At 8 to 1 you will find three time race winner Greg Biffle with Kyle Busch right behind him at 9 to 1. The top of the WSE list closes out this week with two time winner Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon ranked at 15 to 1. Either one of those two drivers could turn out to be a lucrative long shot wager.

Now for the weekly disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these numbers are for informational and entertainment purposes. They neither encourage nor condone the placing of wagers on their events.

This is normally where I offer some silly alternative regarding how to spend the left over coins from your weekly budget. I’m not doing that this week. This is Ford championship weekend and every NASCAR fan in the country has the right to get a little wild and crazy.

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THE RACE BREAKDOWN

The Ford 400 is 267 laps/400.5 miles around the Homestead-Miami Speedway’s 1.5 mile oval.

The race has 45 entries vying for the 43 starting berths. Nine of the entries are on the go or go home list meaning they don’t have a guaranteed starting berth because they are currently outside of NASCAR’s top 35 in owner’s points. These teams will have to rely on qualifying speeds to make the race.

Qualifying day is going to be important because it will establish pre race track position and, of equal importance, determine the order of pit stall selections. The track qualifying record, 181.111 MPH, was set by Jamie McMurray back in November of 2003.

The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in November of 1999 and was won by Tony Stewart. Since that time there has been 11 Cup races at the speedway that has sent eight different winners to victory lane.

The Homestead-Miami Speedway has progressive banking in its turns measuring 18,19, and 20 degrees. The two straight-aways only has four degrees of banking.

The pit road speed is 45 MPH.

The weather forecast for race day Sunday calls for sunny skies and daytime highs around 76 degrees. Because this is solely a daytime race, track temperatures could be a concern for crew chiefs. Also of concern will be the opening phase of sunset, towards the end of the race, when drivers will have to endure a severe glare on their windshields while going down the front straightaway towards turn one.

The Ford 400 will be broadcast live by the ESPN2 Network with the pre race show beginning at 12 pm eastern time. The race re airs will be Monday morning, 330 am et, also on ESPN2 and again on Wednesday afternoon, 230 pm et, on SPEED.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

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