All you have to do is look back to last year’s Chase to find out that at some point the pressure associated with winning a Sprint Cup title becomes more about the mental approach a driver takes to the track than the actually driving of the car.
After the next to the last race of the 2010 season at Phoenix, Denny Hamlin crawled out of his car showing signs the pressure was getting to him as the series headed to Homestead-Miami for the last race of the season.
Even though Hamlin was still on top of the points, the pressure was coming from then-four-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, who had trimmed Hamlin’s lead going into the final race to the point that he felt good about his chances of winning a record fifth consecutive title. The week leading up to the race provided plenty of talk from both drivers’ camps, but what was coming out of Hamlin sounded more like a man that was actually trailing than leading the points. Johnson and his team had been through too many battles on their way to winning their four titles and the pressure-filled position of heading into the last race of the season trailing actually had them pumped up.
When race day rolled around at Miami, you could feel the confi dence that Johnson had. Hamlin sounded like a man already defeated. Johnson went on to win his fifth title while Hamlin was left to think about the opportunity that he let slip away from him.
The same scenario may be starting to play out this year between points leader Carl Edwards and second place Tony Stewart. Edwards started on the pole but finished ninth at Martinsville on Sunday after a day that saw him being lapped twice on the track while Stewart was going on to post his third win in the season’s Chase. The win moved Stewart up two spots in the standings and, more importantly, shaved off 11 points from the top. Stewart now trails Edwards by only 8 points.
Stewart is no stranger to the pressures of running for the championship, as he already has two titles earned while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. This is his first serious run at the title while driving for his own team, Stewart-Haas Racing, but it became very apparent soon after he took the checkered flag on Sunday that he had Edwards in his sights.
During post race interviews, Stewart said, “He’d (Edwards) better be worried. That’s all I can say. He’s not going to have an easy three weeks.” Edwards brushed it off by saying, “He’s wound up; he won the race. We’ll see what happens at Texas. I feel like we’re going to go there and we’re going to have as good a shot to win as anyone.”
Stewart and Edwards aren’t the only two drivers that are competing for the title. Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are still in the hunt. Harvick’s fourth-place finish on Sunday allowed him to pick up 5 points on the leader as he moved up two spots to third and is now only 21 points from the top spot. Keselowski finished 17th and actually fell one spot to fourth and also lost 9 points to the leader as he now trails Edwards by 27.
Matt Kenseth took the biggest hit of the day in the standings. Even though he started second to teammate Edwards, thanks to qualifying being rained out, Kenseth had trouble late in the race and finished a very disappointing 31st. His chances for his second series title took a big hit as the dismal finish dropped him three spots down to fifth, 36 points off the lead.
CHASE NOTES: Stewart’s win was the 42nd of his career and third of the season, with all three wins occurring during the first seven races of the Chase. The win was also his ninth career Chase victory, putting him second in that category trailing only Johnson who leads all drivers with 20 Chase wins. Only the top 10 Chase finishers are recognized at the seasonending banquet, which makes for some competition for the 10th spot. Jeff Gordon now sits in 10th but holds a slim 4-point lead over Hamlin and a 13-point lead over Ryan Newman.
Race Preview Event: AAA Texas 500 Track: Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile tri-oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns) Date: Nov. 6, 3 p.m. TV: ESPN Radio: PRN Defending Champion: Denny Hamlin