NASCAR mailbag: Is Jimmie Johnson vs. Denny Hamlin the next Chase feud? – SB Nation

Each Wednesday SB Nation’s NASCAR reporter Jordan Bianchi answers your questions about the latest news and happenings within the sport. If you have a mailbag question email jordanmbianchi@gmail.com.

Seeing how Martinsville is such a great track and even its bad races are usually better than good races at most other tracks, doesn’t it make sense that it should host an elimination race over other tracks? No offense to Dover (the Round 1 elimination track) or Phoenix (Round 3), but they’re boring. Martinsville is everything a NASCAR track should be and a Chase elimination race would only make it better.

–Tommy

If the concept behind the elimination-style format is to amplify the intensity, then the half-mile Martinsville Speedway is the ideal venue. Already, playoff participants are borderline unnerved due to the nature of racing on a track where rutting a guy out of the way is often the best means to complete a pass.

Now imagine situations like what unfolded on Sunday, when title-eligibles Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin had a pair of run-ins. With the stakes heightened, there’s a distinct possibility one of them wouldn’t have been able to keep a cool head, leading to some form of retribution. And as we’ve seen in the two-plus years NASCAR has had this playoff format, the more layers of drama that can be added, the greater chance something noteworthy occurs — exactly what NASCAR is seeking.

This question also raises a larger issue about the Chase and how NASCAR has failed to properly setup its playoff schedule as favorably as it could. When the Chase was first implemented in 2004, NASCAR should’ve taken the opportunity to reconfigure its schedule so that it had not only a diverse arrangement of tracks, but also places where good racing frequently occurs.

NASCAR, however, merely took its existing schedule and designated the final 10 events as those that would make up the Chase. Zero originality — and what came as a result were too many intermediate speedways, only one short track, and zero short tracks.

Twelve years later, the problem remains. Eight of the 10 tracks in the 2004 Chase continue to host playoff races, and the two additions (Chicagoland and Texas) are neither a short track nor a road course — they’re 1.5-mile ovals.

Don’t expect this to change. Even though it’s been long overdue, NASCAR has shown an unwillingness to dynamite its schedule — both overall and playoff specific — and something dramatic would have to occur to alter this position.

Are Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin going to be the feud de jour of this year’s Chase?

–Russ

With Johnson and Hamlin tangling Sunday — including an encounter that damaged Johnson’s No. 48 car, which required an elongated pit stop — and later, their soft (playful?) jabs on Twitter, it’s easy to conclude Johnson vs. Hamlin will replicate Keselowski vs. Gordon or Logano vs. Kenseth.

But the possibility of any animosity continuing to fester and manifesting into more fireworks is unlikely, even if there is a history between the two (Johnson got into Hamlin’s head and beat him for the 2010 championship) because immersing himself in feuds is not Johnson’s style. He prefers to keep his head down and let his actions do the talking.

As for Hamlin, he has much more to lose over the next few weeks than Johnson, who’s already secured a spot in the championship bracket. He needs either a victory or great finishes the next two weeks to clinch his berth, and as a driver with a questionable psyche, Hamlin’s focus should only be on himself and his team.

Further decreasing tensions between Johnson and Hamlin is that neither cost the other a good result at Martinsville. Johnson won, while Hamlin finished third, which makes it a dramatically different situation than Keselowski and Logano costing Gordon and Kenseth wins they required to avoid elimination.

Do you think the No. 48 team will look to experiment a lot and not bring their best stuff to the track the next two weeks?

–Justin

A benefit of locking yourself into the subsequent round early is the options it affords you. For Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, they can either go to Texas Motor Speedway seeking a fifth consecutive victory there, or turn their attention to Homestead and use Texas to fine-tune.

Were Johnson to win the AAA Texas 500, he would keep someone from advancing to the championship round via a victory. That’s especially significant for title contender Kevin Harvick, who’s in a sizable points deficit following a subpar 20th at Martinsville.

Conversely, Johnson and Knaus know firsthand the advantage that comes with being able to prepare accordingly. After the No. 48 team won the second-round opener to automatically advance, Knaus said it allowed him to look ahead to Martinsville. He can now do the same: virtually ignore Texas and the following week’s elimination race, while strategizing extensively on the championship finale scheduled for Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Both approaches present positives and negatives. But given the choice between experimenting for Homestead or assuring Harvick’s elimination, the answer seems obvious.

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