NASCAR Update: Signs Point to the Chase Coming Down to Hamlin vs. Johnson

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 24, 2012

The signs are starting to point to this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship being between Denny Hamlin (left) and Jimmie Johnson.
The signs are starting to point to this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship being between Denny Hamlin (left) and Jimmie Johnson.Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

Sure, we're only two races into this year's edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and there are eight more races still to come before we crown 2012's champion.

In theory, it's way too early to make serious predictions because so many different things can still go wrong or in different directions than what we've seen thus far in the first two races.

For example, even though it'll be hard, Jeff Gordon can still rally back from being last in the 12-driver Chase field, 46 points behind new series leader and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.

It certainly didn't help Gordon's cause that he ran as well as he did Sunday, yet managed to gain just one point in the standings from the 47-point deficit he had coming into New Hampshire.

Another driver who can still make a comeback is Matt Kenseth, who remained in 11th place, 35 points behind Johnson.

But the more I watched Sunday's race, the more I started thinking that we could very likely be seeing a preview of what's to come in the next eight races…and what potentially may become the biggest battle between individual drivers down the stretch in the Chase.

That's why I'm going to go out on a limb of sorts: Unless things take a significant turn in the next few races, I'm projecting that the championship battle is going to come down to Sunday's winner, Denny Hamlin, and five-time Cup champ Johnson.

I'm not just saying that because Johnson is now the new points leader and Hamlin won his series-leading fifth race of the season Sunday. Rather, I'm basing my projection on how both drivers have done in the first two races, as well as the desire and fire that appears to be burning brighter in their eyes than their other 10 Chase counterparts.

Sure, Hamlin ran out of gas and finished 16th in last week's Chase opener at Chicago. It was a costly mistake, but one that he and crew chief Darian Grubb learned volumes from. I guarantee they won't make the same mistake again in the remaining Chase races.

And then there's Johnson, who is looking as strong as he ever did during his run of five consecutive championships from 2006 through 2010, recording consecutive runner-up finishes in the first two races of this year's Chase.

Let's reflect back in time—and to an irony of sorts. Go back to 2006, the first season that kicked off Johnson's five-year title run. Who was among his closest challengers, and the same guy who finished third in the overall standings?


Then there's another irony in 2010 when Johnson wrapped up his record fifth straight championship but had to overcome a strong challenge from the guy who ultimately finished second overall. Had it not been for running out of fuel at Phoenix in the second-to-last race, that other driver may very well have won that season's title—and the first of his Cup career—not Johnson.

Who was it? Hamlin again, of course.

And now here we are in 2012. The stars seem to once again be aligning between Johnson and Hamlin. Coincidence? Perhaps. A sign of things to come? I think you can make a strong argument, indeed.

Now, before you discount my logic, I'm not already counting out guys like last week's winner in the Chase opener, Brad Keselowski.

Nor am I ready to count out the rest of the Chase field: defending Cup champion Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., nor Kenseth or Gordon.

I'm just saying that based upon what we've seen over the last several seasons, particularly during Johnson's quintet of championships, that there's almost always been something that's happened in the first few races in each of the first eight editions of the Chase that has become almost a prelude of what's to come further on.

With the way both the drivers of the No. 11 (Hamlin) and No. 48 (Johnson) are riding high after Chase race No. 2, they're not only at or near the top in the standings, they definitely seem to have an edge over the rest of their Chase counterparts in momentum, confidence and good fortune.

Can it last? Who knows.

Can something happen to one or both drivers that they can be riding high near the end of September, only to be shot down by the time November rolls around?

Of course. Anything's possible.

That's why I'm not ruling anyone out of the Chase this early. Those that have not been as fortuitous or lucky in the first two races can still make up some of the ground they've lost. And of course, the further back they are now—like Kenseth and Gordon—the more effort they'll have to put in and the harder they'll have to work in the remaining eight races.

Guys like Earnhardt, who we've hardly heard from in the first two races, could go on a tear starting with Dover this coming weekend or next week at Talladega.

Likewise, Johnson and Hamlin could get caught up in wrecks in the next two races that could radically alter the Chase standings as we see them today.

But once we get past Talladega and race No. 4 of the Chase, I think you can make a case that the overall picture—and the way things are likely going to play out in the last six races—will be significantly clearer.

And something tells me that when things do indeed get more into focus, Hamlin and Johnson will be right there, duking it out the rest of the way until Homestead.

If I had to pick one of the two to become champion, I'd lean toward Hamlin, not only for what he's done this season overall as well as in the first two Chase races, but for a reason you may scoff at.

You see, the final Chase race—and the championship—will both be decided on Nov. 18. That just also happens to be Hamlin's 32nd birthday. Oh yes, and even though Hamlin is known for being a Virginia native, he was actually born in Florida on that fateful day—in Tampa. As the old saying goes, you can look it up.

That's perhaps one of the greatest ironies of all, don't you think? It's almost as if the stars are lined up for him—although I must admit that the only other time Hamlin raced in the championship event on his birthday was in 2007, he finished last in the Chase.

Five years later, he's more mature, more experienced and arguably readier than he's ever been to win what he promised team owner Joe Gibbs so many years ago that he was going to win the Cup championship.

Earlier this past week, Hamlin tweeted the guarantee that he'd win at New Hampshire. Sure enough, he lived up to his word.

With as exciting a championship battle as we saw last season between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, something tells me we've only begun to see perhaps just as exciting of a battle between Johnson and Hamlin.

It's not just irony; it has the potential to be fate.