Five thoughts on a compelling final battle for the Sprint Cup

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As I mentioned last weekend, this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup has been much different than last year’s and the changes have been for the better.

Now we’ve come to the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Last year, there was one dominant storyline at this point: The sixth coronation of Jimmie Johnson and him now coming within one championship of NASCAR gods Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty.

This year, there’s four of them. For Kevin Harvick, it’s about seeking the culmination of a 14-year odyssey. For Denny Hamlin, it’s about putting memories of his 2010 title collapse to rest. For Joey Logano, it’s about showing everyone that he is now the beast we thought he would be. And for Ryan Newman, it’s about defying the odds, one more time.

And they’ve been through a Chase unlike any other we have seen. These are my thoughts on it all…

1. Now more than ever, Kevin Harvick needs to be “The Closer.”

Is this the moment at last?

Fourteen years ago, Kevin Harvick was given an impossible task – replace the fallen Dale Sr. at Richard Childress Racing. No one would have blamed him if he couldn’t handle the pressure of it all.

Harvick didn’t just survive. He thrived. But while he cemented himself as a mainstay in the sport during the years that passed, he couldn’t become a champion with RCR.

Deciding that a new home may be the answer, Harvick went to Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of 2013. His first year there hasn’t always been smooth, but with four wins under his belt (including his win-and-you’re in triumph in last Sunday’s Eliminator Round finale at Phoenix), he now has the chance to win stock car racing’s ultimate prize.

“We’ve always come into [a championship] behind, and I think this year, you feel the speed in the car on a week-to-week basis no matter what racetrack we’ve gone to,” he said during yesterday’s Championship 4 Media Day. “I feel like if things don’t go wrong or something doesn’t happen, we’ve been in contention to win the race. For us, I think you come in with that confidence and knowing that your cars have been fast.

“You know your guys have had their backs put against the wall and done a great job under pressure, so you just want to just keep doing the things that you’ve been doing and knowing that if you do those things right, your car is going to run fast enough to win the race, which is what you need to do.”

Technically, all he needs to do is beat Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But with all of them surely bringing their best to South Florida, it may very well take a win to do the job.

And if Harvick’s in position for a win, he had better make it count.

2. Redemption on the way for Denny Hamlin?

Since losing the 2010 Cup championship to Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin has had to fight his way back toward the top. That fight got particularly painful last year when contact between himself and former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano on the final lap at Fontana put him into the wall and out of action for four races with a fractured vertebra.

But despite missing a race this season (at Fontana, ironically enough) and earning just one win at Talladega and seven Top-5 finishes, Hamlin’s come in as the lone member of the Championship 4 to have ever been in this position.

Four years ago, he didn’t seem to handle the spotlight well. Hamlin entered as the points leader, but was coming off a poor result at Phoenix caused by having to pit late.

Both Johnson and Kevin Harvick proceeded to needle him constantly during the contenders’ press conference going into Homestead. Hamlin then qualified for the finale in 37th, spun early in the race, and finished 14th, while Johnson locked up his fifth Cup title with a second-place finish.

But there hasn’t been a spotlight on Hamlin as he’s progressed through the Chase. Unlike Harvick and Logano, who have a combined nine wins this season, he’s gone under the radar. The pressure hasn’t been as high as it was in 2010.

And as Hamlin himself said earlier this month, he’s changed.

“I feel like I’m better now at thinking forward versus thinking backwards,” he said. “And in 2010, I feel like at Homestead, I was still kind of bummed about what happened at Phoenix, where [now] I think that no matter what happens at Phoenix this time around, I’m totally looking forward on what’s in front of me and completing each task…

“…My job is just to do whatever is in front of me at that point and that’s what I feel like I’ve learned throughout the years of being in these kind of championship pictures.”

Those comments were made before last weekend’s Eliminator Round finale at Phoenix, where Hamlin rallied from being put a lap down to finish fifth and make Sunday’s Championship Race.

Looks like this guy is ready for some redemption.

3. Joey Logano’s not a kid anymore.

The teenage image of “Sliced Bread” has been hard to shake for Logano, but here he is with an opportunity to bury it once and for all. A championship on Sunday would be the final step in what has been an up-and-down journey to becoming one of the strongest competitors in the sport.

Logano has been able to rebuild himself with Team Penske after failing to meet sky-high expectations in his early years with Joe Gibbs Racing. This year has been especially good for him with five victories, including two in the Chase at New Hampshire and Kansas.

But while those Chase wins are impressive, he should be just as commended for saving his team from disaster not once, but twice in the Eliminator Round at Texas and again last week at Phoenix.

That tells me Logano has the mental fortitude to overcome what obstacles may come on Sunday – or in the days leading up to then.

Case in point: During yesterday’s Championship 4 Media Day, the drivers were asked about their approach for Homestead. Kevin Harvick referenced Logano’s blocking tactics to protect teammate Brad Keselowski in his victory at Talladega a few weeks ago.

“I thought you were going to say you were going to send Brad out to be a moving chicane like you were at Talladega,” Harvick said.

Harvick can play those mind games as good as anyone. But while such tactics may have eaten the younger Logano alive, you wonder how effective they can be against a grown-up, matured Logano.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Logano replied to Harvick’s attempt at rattling his cage. At the end of the formal media session, he patted Harvick on the shoulder and said “Nice.”

4. On accepting a winless Sprint Cup champion

I can’t help but note the potent words that have been used regarding winless Ryan Newman’s bid to claim the Sprint Cup title.

It just strikes me that this quiet, unassuming Hoosier that spends much of his off-track time helping his wife rescue unwanted animals is the one that’s causing writers and pundits to say that he could give NASCAR a black eye by winning the title, or that he could do NASCAR a favor by beating a flawed championship system in front of the world.

I wonder if Newman’s amused by all of this.

And I also wonder how some fans in the base find the idea of a winless NASCAR champion as abhorrent.

As my colleague, Tony DiZinno, told me the other day, Newman making the Championship 4 is akin to an 11 seed making the Final Four in college basketball.

That would be almost universally loved in March Madness. So why isn’t that happening with Newman as he gets his chance to slay the giants?

Seems rather strange.

5. How I’ve learned to accept the Chase

Recently, I got a call from my mother. She was out shopping, noticed some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures, and thought of how I used to play with them when I was little.

But the Turtles she noticed weren’t like mine. They were the bulked-up, more NFL defensive lineman than Ninja Turtles from the recent Michael Bay version.

“I don’t like them,” she said. “They don’t look like yours.” She’s right. But I still noted that almost 30 years after I came into this world, the Turtles are still rolling along – even if the movie ones aren’t quite the “Heroes in a Halfshell” I grew up with.

Later that day, my 3-year-old little brother came over to my home and watched a bunch of Spider-Man cartoons. At first, he delved into the early 1980s Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends but was later enthralled by the current version, which has Spidey as a teenager still learning on the job.

Again, I thought about how Spider-Man, like the Turtles, had evolved over the years but was still the hero of choice for many youngsters like my little bro.

And it all made me realize: How is NASCAR any different with this new Chase for the Sprint Cup format?

It’s all variations on a theme – basic elements retained with others changed to suit the times. This new Chase is certainly different from what I was first exposed to regarding NASCAR.

Is it perfect? No, it’s not. But this is where NASCAR’s evolution currently sits. Don’t like it? Just wait a while.

Chances are you’ll see tweaks done to the Chase, sooner or later. And if we stick around long enough, we could see an entirely different way to crown a champ.

We’re all welcome to keep our preferences, whether they lie with the original points format or with the Chase. But we’ve gotta remember that the latter is just a sign of the times – nothing more, nothing less.