Originally written on Race Review Online  |  Last updated 11/19/14

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 07: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #18 Far Bureau Insurance Toyota, and Scott Wimmer, driver of the #29 Holiday Inn Chevrolet, drive during the NASCAR Nationwide Series Emerson Radio 250 at Richmond International Raceway on September 7, 2008 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

 

The bottom of half of the Sprint Cup point standings continues to produce good TV. Ten of the season's 25 races have been won by three fellows from that neck of the points woods (Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, and Brad Keselowski), and the limelight this weeks finds Hamlin with the focus and sparkles.

With his series-best 4th win on the year last Sunday evening at Atlanta (and second consective win following his Bristol triumph), Mr. Hamlin jumped ahead of fellow contenders Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson, each with three wins apiece, to become the likely Chase number one seed. In the funky Russian roulette of title contenders this season, Hamlin is the next up for examination. Is he now the favorite to win this year's Chase?

That’s the issue at stake in this episode of Bonus Points, a weekly feature in which Sports-at-Work writers Sam Salo and Luke Krmpotich debate a current issue in NASCAR, giving their takes on the way things ought to be. Sometimes, Sam and Luke will agree; other times, they may have slightly differing opinions; and on occasion, they'll be at each other's throats.

Each writer will also assign a "flag" value to his opinion on the question: checkered flag if it's a slam dunk, green flag if he's mostly convinced, yellow flag if it's a toss-up, red flag if he's pessimistic or black flag if he's dead set against the idea.

Sam: Denny Hamlin may be hot right now, but will he be blazin' in five weeks? Ten weeks?  ...eleven weeks--you know, when the year is over, and a champion is crowned?

That's hard to tell. An easier question to begin with is, "Is Denny Hamlin a true championship contender?"

The obvious answer is "yes"; he showed in 2010 that he can take a championship fight down to the fifteenth round, and he clearly demonstrated that his skill level is that of a true title fighter. He's capable of pulling off 10-race streaks of brilliance, and he has a volatile mojo that, while sometimes detrimental, is also capable of prolific winning ways.

The harder question to answer now becomes, "Is Denny the number one title contender entering the Chase?"

With advance apologies for an imprecise answer, that's very hard to tell indeed. In simple terms--or shall we say, in Jimmie Johnson terms--it will be hard to mark anyone as the number one power seed other than Jimmie Johnson until said driver goes at least two years without winning a Cup title. It's also been shown the the 10 Chase races are often a different animal than the first 26 races of the season, and drivers have been known to pull a quick one and make a surprise run at the championship. Kurt Busch in 2004 and Tony Stewart last year are prime examples.

With all of that said, Denny Hamlin is indeed shaping up to be one of the top handful of title threats in 2012. But is he the number one prizefighter for the year? Until further notice, and until those two years of non-Jimmie titles go by, Hamlin gets a yellow flag of caution. He has the potential to bust a move, but championship prognostications for Hamlin are still on their pace laps.

 

Luke: Jimmie Johnson has shown in multiple years that a reliable formula is to rattle of a couple of wins just prior to the Chase, positioning himself for a run to the title. Denny Hamlin appears to be making use of that plan right now, as he has now taken the bull by the horns and captured consecutive checkered flags at Bristol and Atlanta. With four wins on the year, he'll likely be the championship leader at the outset of the Chase.

Is Hamlin's current hot streak and probable status as top dog entering the Chase enough to mark him as the title favorite?

Of course, Hamlin has been in this position once before. In 2010, he entered the Chase as the points leader on the heels of winning the final regular season race at Richmond. He nearly parlayed that momentum into a title, before choking it away in the final laps at Phoenix and by over-driving his car at Homestead. Last year was a down year for Hamlin, but he's back on track this season with championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb. To all appearances, Hammy is more confident and swaggerish (is that a word?) than ever. Without a doubt, he's a serious title contender.

But is he the man to beat? On this particular question, I agree with my colleague that that title should not be bestowed lightly upon any driver not named Jimmie Johnson--i.e., he of the five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006-2010.

Yes, Johnson has had a bit of bad luck lately and isn't exactly on a roll heading into the Chase. And yes, Hamlin has looked mighty impressive during his current two-race winning streak, but despite the disparity in their recent results, Mr. Five Time is still the man to beat.

While I recognize that logical minds may disagree with that assertion that Jimmie is heads and shoulders above the rest of the field (it's true that the competition has reeled Team 48 in a bit toward the pack in recent seasons), at this point it's an even harder case to make that Hamlin is anything approaching a prohibitive favorite as NASCAR ramps up for the Chase.

For these reasons, I assign a red flag to the proposition that Denny Hamlin is currently the championship favorite, with perhaps a tinge of yellow around the flag's border.


Final analysis: A call of "whoa, there!" goes out to enthusiastic supporters of the No. 11 getting ahead of themselves in preparing their championship dances. The idea of Denny Hamlin being the 2012 title favorite on the strength of his two recent victories receives a yellow flag of caution from Sports at Work's NASCAR prognosticators.

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