MIAMI (AP) – The way this Chase for the championship has gone, no one should be conceding the Nextel Cup title to Jimmie Johnson just yet.

Granted, his 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth means Johnson will need a total collapse in Sunday’s season finale to give his first title away. But this third year of the Chase has been a wild one, in which no driver has been immune from issues.

So should bad luck finally break Johnson’s momentum, the other four challengers must be prepared to capitalize at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Having nothing to lose and everything to gain is a much more enjoyable position than the one Johnson is in, where a 100 different things could happen all with the potential to derail his dream season.

“If you are in that spot, I’d worry about everything,” Kenseth said Thursday. “Tires being loose, or engines blowing, or running over a piece of debris – I’d be worried about everything. “But not being in that spot, you just go into the race trying to do the best you can so you are right there and in position if any of that happens to Jimmie.”

Still, all four challengers were able to keep things in perspective during a sometimes comical news conference Thursday. Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. joked they were seated at “the slim-chance table” on the podium, a humorous – yet accurate – assessment of their chances.

Hamlin, the rookie who wasn’t even expected to make the Chase, is tied with Kevin Harvick for third in the standings, 90 points behind Johnson. Earnhardt is 115 back in his comeback season. He missed the Chase last year completely, putting NASCAR’s most popular driver on the sidelines for the sport’s showcase event.

So in some regard, just being part of the action was enough for those two.

“We’re going into this weekend thinking that based on performance we can finish second or we can finish fifth in the points,” Hamlin said. “We can move forward, but the way we look at it, we can only move back one (spot) based on performance. So we’re just going to go all out with it and run every lap like it’s a blast.”

But truth be told, there’s still a lot on the line for everyone in the Chase – even if they can’t run down Johnson.

Some of it’s personal pride, and then there’s the lucrative side of it, which Johnson knows firsthand. He was poised to finish second in the final season standings last year, but blew a tire, crashed and wound up fifth. That difference cost Johnson $924,076 in prize money – a nice chunk of change for the challengers to chase after.

And if Johnson does falter and someone else wins the title, the payout difference from first to second place is more than $3.5 million.

“Not just for the money, but you always want to do the best you can do,” Kenseth said. “You always want to finish as high as you can and have the best year you can, but certainly there’s a pretty big money difference and that trickles down to the whole team and trickles down in bonuses with the guys and the drivers and to car owners and everybody.”

There’s side bets on the final finish as well, including one back at Joe Gibbs Racing over where Hamlin will land in the standings and if it will better teammate Tony Stewart’s fourth-place finish in his rookie year, while Earnhardt wants to better the career-best third-place showing he notched in 2003. He’s not finished higher than fifth since that season.

Harvick, meanwhile, just wants to know that he went down fighting.

“We just want to go out and do the best we can,” he said. “We know we want to go out and be aggressive, to try to lead laps, try to win the race. If that works against us in the end, that’s OK, as long as we go down trying to do what we need to do.”

But not at any price.

If the championship should come down to the final lap and Johnson needed to be knocked out of the way for someone else to win it, Harvick said he’d resist the urge to do it. Instead, he’d settle for second with his integrity intact.

“To be able to lay your head down at night you want to be able to win it fair and square,” Harvick said. “You want to put everything on the line, but not do anything that is going to take away from everything that we’ve been able to accomplish this year. I’m not going to cut him any slack, but we’re going to race fair and we’re going to race hard.

“You don’t ever want it to come down to that. You’d be so tarnished it would be hard to live with.”

AP-ES-11-16-06 1758EST


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