Rivals try to get in Hamlin's head

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CORAL GABLES, Fla. --- Look out, Denny Hamlin. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick are right behind you -- and they're making sure you know it.

Denny Hamlin (front) holds a 15-point lead heading into the final race of the Chase on Sunday. Hamlin's margin could be wider if not for a fuel miscalculation during last week's race at Phoenix.   Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo
Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo
Denny Hamlin (front) holds a 15-point lead heading into the final race of the Chase on Sunday. Hamlin's margin could be wider if not for a fuel miscalculation during last week's race at Phoenix.

With the title up for grabs in Sunday's season finale, Johnson and Harvick are doing their best to turn up the heat on NASCAR's points leader.

Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, was his usual model of California cool during Thursday's news conference to preview the closest title race in Chase for the Sprint Cup championship history. Harvick was his typically mischievous self, facing every question with blunt honesty and never passing on an opportunity to needle the competition -- well, mostly just Hamlin.

"This has been one of the most awkward 30 minutes I've been through," Hamlin squirmed about halfway through the session.

Stuck on a podium between the two drivers trying to stop him from winning his first NASCAR title, Hamlin didn't participate in the generally good-natured -- but pointed -- mudslinging being tossed at him from both sides.

"He definitely seems like the most nervous," Harvick said, nodding at Hamlin.

"For us, I mean, we have nothing to lose. This guy does," Johnson said, putting his arm around Hamlin.

On and on it went for more than an hour, as reading body language became important during the many awkward silences.

Harvick made at least two jokes about Hamlin using the same carburetor he had last week in Phoenix, when his car was unable to make it to the finish on fuel. The gaffe cost Hamlin a more sizable lead in the standings heading into Sunday's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Had Hamlin not needed to make a late fuel stop, he likely would have taken a lead of almost 60 points into the finale. Instead, he's up by 15 over Johnson and 46 over Harvick in the closest race since the Chase made its debut in 2004.

Hamlin recognized the lost opportunity immediately, and still showed the marks of his frustration four days later.

"It was frustrating for a little while. I got the bloody knuckles to prove it," he said. "We're all going to have emotions on those kind of days."

When the news conference was over, Hamlin broke into a wide smile as he stood next to Johnson and Harvick, both stone-faced, with the Sprint Cup trophy. They all then went their separate ways, and Hamlin insisted he was unrattled.

"It's almost endearing ... we say the things that we say about each other and our teams because it's so close," he said. "You're looking for any advantage. If you can get into a guy's head, then that's going to be an advantage."

A week ago, Johnson said he never gets too caught up in mind games and chooses instead to focus only on what he personally has to do. Those who waste time on playing games, Johnson theorized, "are almost Jedi mind-tricking themselves."

We'll see in the final race what the effects of Thursday's show will be, but Hamlin seemed convinced he's unaffected.

"I'm not afraid to hear what people have to say, and critics and whatnot, because ultimately anything negative that I hear is fuel," Hamlin said. "I prefer to stay busy and things like that, the more I think about it, the more nervous you get.

"And really, this shouldn't be a nervous time. This should be a very exciting time in my career."

Chase Standings

1. Denny Hamlin 6,462
2.
Jimmie Johnson 6,447
3. Kevin Harvick 6,416
4. Carl Edwards 6,198
5.
Matt Kenseth 6,151
6.
Jeff Gordon 6,124
7.
Kyle Busch 6,115
8.
Greg Biffle 6,113
9.
Tony Stewart 6,074
10.
Kurt Busch 6,033
11.
Clint Bowyer 6,028
12.
Jeff Burton 5,958


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