Johnson’s calm will prevail

The NASCAR Sprint Cup season ends Sunday — after 10 months and 36 races — with the most dramatic finish since the late Alan Kulwicki beat out five other contending drivers to win the 1992 championship, long before the Chase era.

The seventh edition of NASCAR’s 10-race Chase runoff will be the most exciting since the first in 2004, when Kurt Busch lost a wheel heading into pit road but was able to recover and win the championship by eight points.

When the Cup race begins in two days at Homestead-Miami Speedway, brash Denny Hamlin will lead four-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson by 15 points and Kevin Harvick by 46.

But the edge, at least mentally, does not appear to be in Hamlin’s favor.

Hamlin looked like someone who had been knocked out of championship contention after a fuel-mileage miscalculation forced him to pit late in Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway and lose a race he had been dominating by leading 190 of 312 laps.

Johnson looked and sounded more like the points leader after the race than Hamlin. Johnson placed fifth, Hamlin 12th.

Poise and composure are reasons Johnson will win his fifth straight championship and lead the top 12 drivers into Las Vegas in two weeks for Sprint Cup Champion’s Week.

Hamlin deserves credit for mustering the courage and perseverance not to miss a race after having major knee surgery in March. But there’s something Hamlin is lacking. When asked after the race about the fuel shortage that relegated him to the disappointing finish, he replied, “I did my job.”

The slightest bobble by a driver or crew member Sunday could ruin a season. Calm needs to prevail, and that edge goes to Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. You can dislike them for being so good the past four years, but you can’t deny what they’ve accomplished.

Points systems created to excite race fans are here to stay, love ’em or hate ’em. We only hope that rumors about NASCAR changing the Chase format are nothing more than exhaust fumes, because having three drivers within 46 points heading into the season finale is as good as it can get without turning the system into a bigger carnival show.

NASCAR can only hope its finale can match the drama produced by the NHRA’s season-ending event Sunday in Pomona, Calif., where Funny Car points leader Matt Hagan was upset in the first round and John Force won his first two rounds to capture his 15th series championship.

If fans, track promoters and series brass want soap operas created by “playoff” systems, they’re getting what they’ve wished for.

■ LAS VEGAS INDYCAR — There’s still no word on the status of Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosting the IndyCar Series’ 2011 season finale. A decision is expected to be finalized within a few weeks.

But there was a positive development Monday when Firestone had a closed-door tire test on the speedway’s 1.5-mile oval with IndyCar drivers Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe.

A member of my big-ear posse said drivers were turning laps at about 215 mph, which is 30 mph faster than Cup cars register on the circuit.

My prediction: NASCAR Camping World Trucks and IndyCar Lights on Oct. 15, 2011, followed by an IndyCar race the next day.

This would mean we get Danica Patrick racing March 5 at the speedway in the NASCAR Nationwide race and a return Oct. 16 for IndyCar.

What more could we hope for?

Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247. Visit Wolf’s motor sports blog at lvrj.com/blogs/heavypedal/ throughout the week.

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