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Time for contenders to shut up and drive

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — After all the talk, tweeting and obvious attempts at mind games, it's time for NASCAR's three title contenders to get serious about the tightest championship race in seven years.

In other words, they need to shut up and drive.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup championship will be settled Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where points leader Denny Hamlin has weathered a steady wave of needling from Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.

Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, poked Hamlin several times in an effort to rattle Hamlin's nerves as Hamlin tries to protect a 15-point lead — the smallest in the seven-year history of the Chase.

Harvick, sitting in third and 46 points behind Hamlin, has openly played the aggressor and talked of how he's got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The trash-talk and mind games have gone on all week, adding an extra element of drama to what's already been a terrific title race.

"I never remember a time in our sport where there's been this much talking," Jeff Burton said. "I almost feel like we're going to a boxing match."

By the checkered flag Sunday, it may very well feel like the contenders went 12 tough rounds in this spirited title race.

The match pits Johnson, the most dominant driver of the decade, who is seeking a historic fifth consecutive title. Despite six wins this season, he's been off a bit and his Hendrick Motorsports team hasn't dominated the way people have come to expect from Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Instead, it's been Hamlin who has led the charge. The popular preseason pick to dethrone Johnson, Hamlin has had a breakthrough eight-win season. He overcame knee surgery in March, a spat with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and has stepped up in the Chase to outrun Johnson.

Then there's Harvick, overshadowed despite season-long consistency and his role as the leader of the resurgence at storied Richard Childress Racing. With three wins and 25 top-10 finishes, Harvick took easy control of the "regular season" points lead and put himself in position to win RCR's first Cup championship since the late Dale Earnhardt's seventh and final title in 1994.

Johnson has lived through six previous title races and has been loose and fun this week, enjoying his down time in South Beach with his wife and new daughter. Harvick, never known to get rattled, has spent much of his time at the track overseeing the Kevin Harvick Inc. efforts in the Nationwide and Trucks Series.

And how has Hamlin handed the pressure?

Just fine, thank you.

Surrounded by a large group of friends at the famed Fontainebleau hotel, Hamlin has had an enjoyable week celebrating his 30th birthday, which was Thursday. There was a boat trip around Miami, a meeting with LeBron James at the hotel and great seats at Friday night's Bobcats-Heat game.

Bothered by the enormous task at hand Sunday? Doesn't seem like the pressure, or the competition, is getting to Hamlin.

"I feel the same as I do every week. I'm never uptight. I do me. I don't know what else to tell you," he said.

Then, showing a bit of fire for the first time all week, he finally addressed the persistent needling from Johnson and Harvick.

"If he (Johnson) keeps bringing up my name, he's pretty much worried about me," Hamlin said. "You're not gonna say you're not worried and you're relaxed and everything, but keep bringing up my name."

Fact of the matter is, Hamlin has simply been better than the champions for several weeks now.

A week ago at Phoenix, it was Johnson who should have dominated. He'd traditionally used the desert track as the place where he put the competition away, and everybody expected another runaway win.

Instead, it was Hamlin who dominated the afternoon until poor fuel mileage forced him to pit late and fade to 12th. It erased what could have been a lead of almost 60 points, it's instead 15, and kept Johnson and Harvick in contention to take the title Sunday.

Harvick remained at ease through two final practice sessions Saturday, pulling his Chevrolet off the track early because he liked it just fine.

"We're really happy with our car," Harvick said. "It should be a fun day. I'm excited. We're going to race hard."

Finishing up early could be viewed as another mind game, but nobody seemed to notice as the final preparations came to an end on the biggest race of the season. Johnson spent a good deal of track time racing Hamlin, as the two got a chance to measure their performance before the big event.

When the practice was over, Hamlin got one final chance to talk a little trash himself.

"I feel like we have a better car than (Johnson), I feel like (Harvick) is maybe a hair better than us," Hamlin said. "But we are always a little bit slower in practice than what we are in the race. I'm confident that we're going to have a good day."

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