CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Look out, Denny Hamlin. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick are right behind you — and they’re making sure you know it.
With the title up for grabs in Sunday’s season finale, Johnson and Harvick are doing their best to turn up the heat on NASCAR’s points leader.
Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, was his usual model of California cool during Thursday’s news conference to preview the closest title race in Chase for the Sprint Cup championship history. Harvick was his typically mischievous self, facing every question with blunt honesty and never passing on an opportunity to needle the competition — well, mostly just Hamlin.
“This has been one of the most awkward 30 minutes I’ve been through,” Hamlin squirmed about halfway through the session.
Stuck on a podium between the two drivers trying to stop him from winning his first NASCAR title, Hamlin didn’t participate in the generally good-natured — but pointed — mudslinging being tossed at him from both sides.
What a way for Hamlin to spend his 30th birthday!
“He definitely seems like the most nervous,” Harvick said, nodding at Hamlin.
“For us, I mean, we have nothing to lose. This guy does,” Johnson said, putting his arm around Hamlin.
On and on it went for more than an hour, as reading body language became important during the many awkward silences.
Harvick made at least two jokes about Hamlin using the same carburetor he had last week in Phoenix, when his car was unable to make it to the finish on fuel. The gaffe cost Hamlin a more sizable lead in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Had Hamlin not needed to make a late fuel stop, he likely would have taken a lead of almost 60 points into the finale. Instead, he’s up by 15 over Johnson and 46 over Harvick in the closest race since the Chase made its debut in 2004.
Hamlin recognized the lost opportunity immediately after Sunday’s race, and still showed the marks of his frustration four days later.
“It was frustrating for a little while. I got the bloody knuckles to prove it,” he said. “We’re all going to have emotions on those kind of days.”
He insisted, though, there are no lingering issues from the disappointment in the desert and he came to Miami with a clear head, focused on the task at hand.
“When I said I was leaving Phoenix, I left Phoenix, it was over with,” he said. “It was completely over with. The only time I relived it is when I got home, I do my normal thing, always rewatch the races no matter what to learn as much as I can.
“Once that I was done, turned the TV off, thought about it a little bit before I went to bed. When I woke up the next day, just kept myself busy.”
Johnson has the experience of participating in the six Chases all the way to the finale. He lost to Kurt Busch by just eight points in 2004, and a blown tire prevented him from challenging Tony Stewart in 2005. The next four years belonged to him. He’s had the title pretty much in hand by the time he’s gotten to the finale, and he hasn’t had to race very hard at Homestead since 2005.
Harvick has proven to be unflappable since he was rushed into the Cup Series as the replacement driver following Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500. Very little rattles the driver known as “Happy,” a bizarre moniker for a guy known for his sharp tongue and the masterful mind games he plays with competitors.
Hamlin, on the other hand, has yet to be in this position during his NASCAR career. Nobody has any idea how he’ll handle the stress Sunday, and if he’ll be able to hold off two drivers who seemed far more relaxed than he did on the podium.
When the news conference was over, Hamlin broke into a wide smile as he stood next to Johnson and Harvick, both stone-faced, with the Sprint Cup trophy. They all then went their separate ways, and Hamlin insisted he was unrattled.
“It’s almost endearing … we say the things that we say about each other and our teams because it’s so close,” he said. “You’re looking for any advantage. If you can get into a guy’s head, then that’s going to be an advantage.”
A week ago, Johnson said he never gets too caught up in mind games and chooses instead to focus only on what he personally has to do. Those who waste time on playing games, Johnson theorized, “are almost Jedi mind-tricking themselves.”
We’ll see in the final race what the effects of Thursday’s show will be, but Hamlin seemed convinced he’s unaffected.
“I’m not afraid to hear what people have to say, and critics and whatnot, because ultimately anything negative that I hear is fuel,” Hamlin said. “I prefer to stay busy and things like that because the more I think about it, the more nervous you get.
“And really, this shouldn’t be a nervous time. This should be a very exciting time in my career.”