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Denny Hamlin taking dead aim at Jimmie Johnson...and Kevin Harvick watches and waits.....

   Denny Hamlin: Martinsville, he hopes, will be the turning point of this year's championship chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   So this year's NASCAR championship race is a little too namby pamby for you?
   Too plain vanilla?
   Well, flash back to October 1956.....when NASCAR racing was really wild and reckless:
   Sawmiller/farmer/racer Herb Thomas, who had won the 1951 and 1953 championships, was running away with the title in the final weeks of the '56 tour, but with Buck Baker still chasing him.  
    In the final month Baker's team owner, Carl Kiekhaefer, who also owned Speedy Thompson' car, suddenly leased the Shelby, N.C. track and got a quick NASCAR sanction for an 'extra' race, which was added to the tour in the final days of the season.

   In that 'extra' race, Thompson crashed with Thomas, who was critically injured -- in an accident that effectively ended his career and left him with a serious brain injury the rest of his life.
    Baker went on to win the championship.
    Now that's a little too much high drama...
    Fastforward to Martinsville Speedway, here, this weekend:
    Denny Hamlin, chasing four-time champ Jimmie Johnson, is settling aside his defensive tactics and going for the throat in Sunday's Tums 500, in what is shaping up as a head-to-head duel between the two men who between them have won the last eight races here.
    And Hamlin Friday took the pole for Round Six of the 10-race chase, giving the best pit on a tight pit road, perhaps the only good pit here, a clear advantage. "We typically don't qualify well but do race well, so this says something," Hamlin said.
    Hamlin, though, is trying to balance his confidence and aggressiveness with caution: "I don't think there's been any chase so far that hasn't had the winner have one bad race.  The top-three guys haven't had a bad race yet. So the odds say all of us are going to have a bad race at some point.
     "Is it next week or is it this week? We don't know."


   Jimmie Johnson: Marked man? They've got to catch him first (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Hamlin's dramatic victory here in the spring – an improbable win, given his late pit stop for tires with less than eight miles to go – is still on his mind....and his rivals'. Hamlin was eighth, in the outside line – not preferred – for the final restart.
   "Given that same situation, I still don't know what we should have done," Hamlin says.
    "We were probably a few hundred feet from losing it anyway because Jeff Gordon was about to cross the line for the white when someone spun."
    That set up a green-white-checkered, one of the wilder finishes of the season. Matt Kenseth tried to muscle around Gordon, who retaliated, with a move that cost him any shot at the win and that opened the door for Hamlin.
   "We thought for sure (fresh) tires were going to win the race....because we'd been out there for 60 laps before that caution," Hamlin said.
   "Cars two-wide it's so hard to pass anyway, and even on new tires I had to put myself three-wide to win.
   "Not sure that taking tires this time around is what we would do...."
    The key to Hamlin's win was teammate Joey Logano, up front for that restart. When Hamlin chopped down to make the pass for the lead, Logano gave him the spot. Few, if any, others would have done that.
    "I have good teammates," Hamlin says. "Joey came to me and I helped him get to that position.
    "Maybe I used up a lot of teammate favors right there with Joey.
    "Somebody else, no, for sure.  I wouldn't have had the room to come down. 
     "There was a lot of different things, and a lot of reasons why we shouldn't have won...but only a few reasons that we did."
    But then that was the spring, when teams had 26 races to play with in making the playoff cut.
    Now it's the chase, and a mistake here Sunday could cost Hamlin or anyone else a shot at the title.
    Still, Hamlin says, after playing defense the first five races of the chase, it's time for him to step things up.
    "I think it's going to be key for me to try to out-qualify Jimmie....then I could possibly set the tone (Sunday) in whether he leads a lap or not.  That's a 10-point swing," Hamlin said.
     And he did.
     "It all starts today. That's where our strategy's at," Hamlin said. 
     "I think Kevin Harvick is probably on the same strategy, trying to make sure Jimmie doesn't get to lead."
     But good luck with that.
    Of course Hamlin is probably the only man here who could pull that off.

   And then comes Talladega, where, Hamlin points out, big crashes could make a big difference in the championship chase.
   At Talladega Hamlin has a different strategy – just follow Johnson: "If I'm around him, then if I'm going to be in a bad spot, and get caught in a wreck, then  more than likely he's going to be in a bad spot too. 
     "It's just whoever comes through the wreck."
    Or maybe Hamlin will use a different strategy at Talladega, "because honestly I feel we have a better Talladega package than those guys.
    "We've been very, very strong on superspeedways, especially Talladega.  We've been able to lead a ton of laps there."
    Hamlin did finish fourth at Talladega this spring, but he blew an engine last fall.

   So it's a three-man title race, barring something weird.
   Hamlin and Harvick chasing Johnson.
  "This is by no means just between me and Jimmie," Hamlin says. "Kevin showed enough consistency through the whole year that I considered him the favorite."
    Then, Hamlin pauses and adds "It's not me versus Jimmie, but like that commercial says 'It's me versus myself.'"
    How is the head anyway?
    "I was way more nervous starting the first green flag lap of the chase this year at New Hampshire than I am right now," Hamlin says.
    "I'm in a pretty good position five races in. 
    "It seems like the pressure is starting to really come off me more, later in these few races than it has put on me. 
    "A lot of it probably is because I'm really comfortable with the next five tracks....where Kansas, Dover and California I've had crashes and not run worth a darn the last three or four years. 
    "I was so nervous the first five races not to mess up and find myself 200 points out when we got to Martinsville.
    "Now I'm in a good position and very comfortable with the tracks we have coming up. 
     "For me it's a no-pressure situation....even thought I put the pressure on myself to win the championship."
     But Johnson insists he's feeling no pressure either. "I think he's more relaxed because he's already accomplished it," Hamlin says.
    "For me it's a little bit more nerve-racking because we haven't won it yet."

                             Qualifying results for Sunday's Martinsville Tums 500


   New teammates: crew chief Jimmy Elledge (L) and Kasey Kahne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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