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The NASCAR championship celebration is finally just days away...and who gets the trophy this time?

 Homestead-Miami: A championship under the palms (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   It is one of the year's big oddities: This fall's NASCAR title chase has been red-hot the past several weeks, and this weekend's season finale features one of the sport's tightest championship battles, with Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick right on Denny Hamlin's bumper for these final 400 miles….yet ESPN's TV coverage has drawn ratings that are noticeably off the pace.
   This is the year of 'Boys, have at it,' and the boys have really had at it.
   Yet when the TV report cards come in,the ratings are way, way down, week after week.

   The Phoenix 500 was down 25 percent from last year's event, continuing the trend. ESPN's broadcast pulled a 2.5 rating, compared to last year's 3.3 on ABC.
    On the plus side, that 2.5 translates to more than four million viewers.
   But why the continuing slide?
   And what to do about it?
   Well, quite likely one of the hot off-season stories will be TV shakeups. But just what form they'll take isn't clear. And it may not be until mid-January before the 2011 TV game plan is set.
   However one big worry is that this fall's dramatic TV decline for ESPN may carry over to next spring's Fox half of the stock car tour.
   ESPN will be carrying the full year's Nationwide events again, beginning in February. But Fox, whose own ratings have been down the last couple of years, will again be the focal point for the sport's opening four months.

    Gil Martin (R) is having his finest season ever as Kevin Harvick's crew chief (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   While most of the attention in this fall's NASCAR title chase has been on the three drivers, it will likely be their crew chiefs who make the calls that win or lose this championship.
    Denny Hamlin's Mike Ford.
   Jimmie Johnson's Chad Knaus.
   Kevin Harvick's Gil Martin.
   And each is taking a different approach to the final game of the year.

   Hey, how about a little deep-sea fishing off Key West, just to take the edge off this final weekend of the NASCAR season?
   That's what Martin has planned for Harvick's crew.
   "I thought it would be a good idea for the guys to just relax, and clear their minds from all this for a day or so," Martin said.
   Indeed of the three teams, Martin's guys may actually be in the best position come Sunday: "We know we can finish no worse than third. So we're going to run flat-out all day long, with nothing to lose.
    "And the other guys will have to play a little defense.
    "We're not intending on playing any defense at all. We're going to throw the long-ball all day long and see where it ends up."
    Head games? Ford poked at Knaus after Hamlin's win there, taking a dig at Knaus' odd mid-race pit crew swap. And Ford came out of Phoenix – after getting beat despite having the best car in the field.
    "I'm surprised we have stayed out of it…because we're usually in the middle of most of this kind of stuff," Martin says of the banter.
    "But I think it's kind of a waste of time to do a lot of smack-talking with Jimmie Johnson's team. They have been in this position many times. They haven't been trailing going into Homestead, but a team of that caliber, you're not going to do a lot of smack-talking and bother them a whole lot.
    "That has the potential of backfiring on you."

    Four straight NASCAR championships: crew chief Chad Knaus has the mental stuff well under control (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Still, there are a few days left till the big race, and that's plenty of time for Harvick – known for rattling a cage or two every now and then, like he did with Hamlin at Dover – to step into center ring Smack-Talk City.
   "One thing our driver does the best," Martin says, "is he works his best under these kind of conditions. Head games will not bother him… because he's one of the best there is at playing head games to start with.
    "I'm very, very happy we have a driver with that strong a mental aspect."
   Team orders?
   All three title contenders have strong, and sometimes rambunctious, teammates.
   What role might those bit-players have in this showdown?
   First, of course, teammates can, by running well themselves, put some spots between their leader and their two rivals. 
   "It's going to be a big factor," Martin says.
    "I don't think anybody is going to go out and intentionally wreck anybody, but I don't think anybody is going to particularly do anybody any favors on the track. I think they (teammates) are going to try to impede their (rivals') process as much as they can."

    Denny Hamlin's victory burnout last fall: Can he hang on to win this year's championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Knaus, going for his fifth straight title as crew chief, seems cooler about all this than Martin and Ford.
   Knaus' edge in this showdown? "Jimmie, ultimately, is a better driver than those two," Knaus says confidently. "Week-in and week-out, Jimmie does a better job of racing than the other guys do, as far as passing cars and what-not."
    However Knaus concedes he does have some unusual worries about this race:
    "The biggest concern I've got is that we haven't gone to Homestead to truly race yet.
    "We've gone down with a bit of a protective mindset. I think that puts us a little bit behind the other guys."
    And Knaus points out that Hamlin ran very well at Homestead last season: "He ran top-five most of the race last year. They had a good pit stop at the end, got some good track position, and he was able to win.
    "We ran 15th to fifth the majority of the day, but never really had to push the car a whole lot.
    "So we haven't had to be the aggressor….that puts us a little bit behind the 8-ball.
    "It's different, for sure: we're going into an event that we haven't had to really race at. That's a little unique for us."
    Regardless Knaus says all the pressure will be on Hamlin and Ford this weekend: "because they're in a protective situation -- where they have to be cognizant of what we're doing and aware of what Kevin is doing.
    "For us it's really pretty simple -- We just have to go fast."

    Can crew chief Mike Ford (L) deliver another championship for team owner Joe Gibbs? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Can Ford get Hamlin's head back on right, after Sunday's disappointment?
   Ford insists Hamlin will be back on target for the 400.
   In fact, in comparing the three drivers, Ford says Hamlin and Johnson are so similar in style and temperament that they almost "mirror" each other.
   And then there are Harvick and Martin: "They're a little more aggressive," Ford says. "They'll take chances…where we won't necessarily take those.
    "So strong-suit for us, Denny stays calmer. Strong suit for them, they'll take chances and make it work."
   And just what is Ford's game plan for the final race?
   "You have to race hard, and if you're in position to run in front of Jimmie and Kevin, then you'll do that," Ford says.
   "But you won't take chances….
   "You may not take the chances to win the race that you normally would.
    "But if you can outrun both those guys, odds are you're going to be racing for a win.
    "Having a 15-point lead is a huge benefit -- We don't feel we have to go win the race.
     "But it would be nice to outrun those two. I feel we've been a little bit better than Jimmie at the 1-1/2-miles.
    "And I think we would have to make mistakes if we're going to lose this."

   Another NASCAR championship celebrates is just days away....so who will get to celebrate  this time? Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

I hope Denny Hamlin!!!

I hope Denny Hamlin!!!

June-YER! You gotta believe!

You gotta believe!

Johnson. Why? Because there

Johnson. Why? Because there are more "quality" Chevys on track than Toyotas. Manufacturers team orders. Don't think Chevy hasn't forgotten about payback on JGR in jumping ship to Toyota with that R07 engine knowledge. If Johnson falls out and Harvick takes the point. Then it will be Harvick's to lose.

....And to add. Don't think

....And to add. Don't think Jack Roush wouldn't love to keep Toyota from winning a championship too. He predicted what Toyota would do in the series and so far, he's been on point. They can win the Trucks & N'wide Championships. Because, really. Who cares? But the Cup? That's another story.

I can't wait to see the new

I can't wait to see the new Car wraps that the drivers will be displaying this year. I know that some of the sponsors have changed as well as drivers switching to other teams. I am still having a hard time seeing Stewart in a different colored car.

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