HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Thursday’s Championship Contenders Press Conference at Homestead-Miami Speedway didn’t peg the love-fest meter the way the 2007 version did, when Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were vying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. Nor did Thursday’s presser feature the head games and deliberate barbs that typified the 2010 event, where Johnson and Kevin Harvick caught Chase leader Denny Hamlin in a withering crossfire of doubt-inducing commentary.
The joint appearance of Johnson, Harvick and Matt Kenseth drivers on the dais Thursday was somewhat tame, due to Johnson’s daunting 28-point lead over second-place Matt Kenseth. Johnson winning a sixth title is by no means inevitable, but it certainly looks somewhat probable.
Said Kenseth during the press conference: “If [Jimmie] was building his own engines, I’d be messing with him right now.”
Both Kenseth and Harvick (third in the standings and 34 points behind Johnson) know that only an epic fail by the No. 48 team will open a path for one of them to steal the championship. Otherwise, Johnson can sew up the title with a finish of 23rd or better.
“If Jimmie does have a problem, he’s so far ahead, the problem needs to be fairly severe,” Kenseth said. “If it is, you need to be pretty far toward the front because, hypothetically, he could have a problem, and if Kevin and I are running around 12th or 13th, Jimmie could still win.”
Problems at Homestead aren’t out of the question.
When Hamlin came to the 2010 season finale with a 15-point lead over Johnson (under the previous scoring system), the driver of the No. 11 Toyota qualified 37th and wrecked early trying to work his way through traffic.
The end result? Johnson was a five-time champion. As he tries for the sixth, Johnson understands the importance of starting near the front of the field.
“Qualifying is so important,” Johnson acknowledged. “Here, it seems we have a lot of green-flag runs. If you start down on track position, don’t have your car right come race day, don’t make the most of Saturday [practice)] you’re going to have a long race and put a lot of pressure on yourself that you don’t want.
“The race does start with qualifying on Friday. The one thing that’s different for me this year is, with the new testing policy, we’re able to save a test session. I felt like we had a productive test session. We’re eager to get going — and it does start on Friday.”
“It started on Thursday, by the way,” Harvick commented, referring to his and Johnson’s attempts to worm their way into Hamlin’s psyche in 2010.
That sort of aggressive banter was absent on Thursday.
“I think, for me, I have a good relationship with both of these guys,” Harvick said. “I feel like there’s a mutual respect for what everybody’s accomplished… just always can have a conversation with both of them.”
“This is the situation we all want to be in,” added Johnson. “I think we all take a lot of pride that we’re all here at the end of this year at the press conference. I can vividly remember missing the press conference in 2011. But I’m happy to be here.”
Among several major changes to the selection process for the NASCAR Hall of Fame will be the inclusion of the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion on the voting panel.
“At Champion’s Week in Las Vegas, NASCAR will announce a number of different, significant changes to the Hall of Fame selection process and eligibility,” NASCAR Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Brett Jewkes said Thursday. “There is one that we want to announce today, because it’s relevant to the proceedings we’ll have on Sunday afternoon.
“As we meet to select the 2015 Hall of Fame class this May, NASCAR will become the first major sport to include a current competitor on the voting panel.”
All three championship contenders liked the idea.
“I think any time anybody asks your opinion and actually listens to it, that’s always neat,” Matt Kenseth, the 2003 champion, said.
“Quickly thinking about it,” added five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, “I think it will help ingrain the current champion into the past and understand more about the history of the sport, the people that came before us.
“I think it’s a cool opportunity for whoever the champion is.”
THANKS, BUT NO THANKS
Of all the championship contenders, Matt Crafton is in the most enviable position. With a 46-point lead over second-place Ty Dillon, Crafton can wrap up the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title simply by taking the green flag on Sunday.
If Crafton is a no-show, however, Dillon can win the championship by winning Friday’s Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead.
Team owner Richard Childress, Dillon’s grandfather, didn’t realize there was even a glimmer of hope for Dillon until he spoke to Crafton after Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Phoenix.
“I was talking to Richard Childress after the race on Saturday, and he thought that I’d wrapped it up,” Crafton said. “I said, ‘No, actually I don’t. I still have to show up and start it, if Ty won.’
“And he jokingly said, ‘You want to go hunting?'”