Monday, June 7, 2010

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Could Denny Steal Sprint Cup Title from Johnson?

By Jerry Bonkowski

Criminals brazenly (some say stupidly) stole Denny Hamlin's car right from his driveway several months ago. Sunday at Pocono Raceway, Hamlin drove his Toyota Camry as if he was the one doing the stealing.

You know the old saying: drive it like you stole it? That's exactly what Hamlin did.

He was that fast, that confident, that contained within himself. In so doing, Hamlin not only won for the fourth time this season in the first 14 races, it was also his fourth career triumph at the 2.5-mile so-called "tricky triangle" of Long Pond, Pa. Equally important is Sunday's win matches Hamlin's season-high wins total, set last season. And there's still 22 races left to go in the 2010 campaign – of which several, I'm pretty sure, have Hamlin's name all ready to be placed upon the winner's trophy.

But Sunday's Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500 may have marked something even more important: Hamlin's coming of age against Jimmie Johnson. Combined, Hamlin and Johnson now own half of this season's wins so far. That's seven wins in 14 races, for the more mathematically challenged.

By virtue of his win, Hamlin moved up two places in the standings to third, while Johnson, who rallied late in the race to finish fifth, moved up one spot in the overall standings to sixth. Less than 80 points separate the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota with the reigning four-time Sprint Cup champ and driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet Impala.

Say what you want about Johnson's usual rivals – Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, among others – but I'm betting that Hamlin is going to be front and center as the biggest obstacle to Johnson's bid for a fifth straight Cup title.

Sure, it's still early in the season, relatively speaking. But look at the standings as they are today: five of the top six drivers in the standings own 12 of the season's first 14 victories.

In so doing, we're starting to see a gradual parting between the haves – those who have wins already – and the have nots, those that don't. Johnson is 214 points behind first-place ranked Kevin Harvick.

From there, it drops off pretty fast. If the Chase for the Sprint Cup were to start today, Clint Bowyer would be the 12th and last driver qualifying. But he'd also be 377 points back.

At that rate, twelve races from now, the demarcation line prior to Richmond and the final Chase qualifying race, the last driver to ultimately make the 12-driver Chase field could come into the so-called playoffs behing 500 or more points behind the then-points leader (before the points reset for the Chase, of course).

My point is pretty simple: the race winners currently in the top-6 are likely to pull even further away from the rest of the pack as the next several weeks progress – and Hamlin and Johnson are likely going to be right at the front of that crowd.

Ryan Newman and Daytona 500 champ Jamie McMurray are the only drivers not in the top-6 to also have reached victory lane, and they're currently ranked 14th and 18th, respectively, after Sunday's fling at Pocono. Their Chase chances are iffy, at best.

While I have no doubt that Johnson will make the Chase again for the seventh straight year, winning Sunday's race – and more importantly, the manner in which he won it – shows me that Hamlin has the drive, talent and ability to keep Johnson from that fifth Sprint Cup trophy.

I mean, think about it, Hamlin has raced and won in excruciating pain after tearing up his knee earlier this year, and then the resulting recovery period following surgery. He's raced in discomfort, hot temperatures, has withstood trading paint with other drivers en route to victory lane and still, nothing has stopped him.

At this rate, nothing – not even Johnson – may stop him from winning his first Cup title, either.

There have been times over the years that I've questioned whether Hamlin was ready to be a serious contender, let alone Cup champion. Remember a couple years back when things weren't going so well for Hamlin and his team? In an almost child-like tantrum, he threw his crew under the bus for their perceived shortcomings (when he was probably just as much as fault for the team's poor performance as they were), prompting a near-mutiny from the crew and then a resulting apology from a long-faced and humiliated Hamlin?

His maturity – or lack thereof at times – has also been called into question during the first few years of his Cup career.

Yet without trying to sound like a homer – and I'm not being one – I think 2010 is Hamlin's watershed year, the breakthrough campaign where he's not only learned how to win, he's also learned how to win intelligently, maturely and with class.

Frankly, he's impressing the hell out of me – and I'm sure he's doing that to many millions of other race fans out there, including a substantial portion of increasingly worried Johnson's followers who are looking at Hamlin now as their own personal Public Enemy No. 1, the guy who can deprive their beloved JJ from title No. 5.

I thought for sure that someone else would be Johnson's top challenger this season, maybe Gordon or KyBusch, Mark Martin or maybe even Dale Earnhardt Jr. But after Sunday, I'm ready to admit it: if Hamlin can avoid any type of slump in the next 12 races leading into the Chase, and then can continue to do in the Chase what he's done thus far in the first third-plus of the season, Johnson may have met his match and his time as the best driver in Cup may have come to an end.

Whether you're a Denny or Jimmy fan, one thing's for sure: it's going to be fun to watch.

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