Jimmie Johnson drew first blood today by qualifying solidly in the top 10. Harvick went out second of the three, but he could only muster a start in the mid 20s. Hamlin went out last, laid an egg and now must start in the Back 40 amongst the start & parkers and racing tards.
I have no doubt the three of them are pretty keyed up about now - but likely none more so than Hamlin.
Consider this about Johnson:
- JJ has won four straight Cups
- Many folks have forgotten forget JJ finished a close 2nd for the Cup the year before he started the Cup-winning streak
- His crew chief, Chad Knaus, has ice water in his veins.
- The 48 has 3 level-headed teamies who know the overall objective for the company and could play the role of spoiler if called upon to do so. Wait - Dale Jr. works for HMS, right? Sorry - JJ has two level-headed teamies.
- His car owner knows a thing or two about winning championships having won six of the big Winston trophies with a driver named Earnhart.
- As the third dog in line, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
- He plays head games at an exceptionally far better level than Hamlin or Johnson.
- If he wins, his team gets to celebrate with an unlimited supply on his incoming sponsor, Budweiser, vs. his outgoing sponsor, Shell/Pennzoil.
- Toyota hasn't won a Cup championship in its limited time in NASCAR.
- A Virginia driver hasn't won the Grand National/Cup championship since Joe Weatherly in 1963.
- The team's conservative call at Phoenix resulted in a loss of about 3 dozen key points, and the poor qualifying effort today is going to hurt his catching sight of the 48 early as well as a less-desirable pit stall.
- One teammate cares little to nothing about the overall team. The other teammate will be too busy trying to keep his Adam's apple inside his driver uni to help 11 hang onto the 48.
If Hamlin prevails, he'll be elated - as will I for having called for him to do so in February. If he loses - especially if its because of an avoidable error...
Well, check out Darrell Waltrip's reaction after losing the 1979 championship in the final race to Richard Petty. (DW went into the final race with a 2 point advantage over the King.) I'll hand it to Waltrip. He conducted the interview with digity. But the pain of seeing it slip away is so very real.