With five races to go in the Chase for the Cup, Denny Hamlin must do what no other NASCAR driver has managed for the past four years: Knock reigning NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson from atop stock car's throne.
Only 41 points behind as the second half of the 10-race playoff begins in Martinsville this weekend, Hamlin feels he's got the four-time champion in his sights.
"I'm happy with it - I feel like I am within striking distance," he said. "Honestly, I'm not nervous at all going into Martinsville. For me, I would be more nervous if I was the 48 car (Johnson) going into Martinsville than I would if I was myself because we won the last two races there."
With time running out, the six-time regular season winner feels it might be time to scrap the conservative approach he's taken for the first half of the 10-race Chase and start banging some fenders. The No. 11 Toyota driver was in a similar position when the Sprint Cup arrived in Martinsville in late March. He battled to a hard-fought maiden win of 2010 and he feels it's time to make things happen again.
"We are going out there to be on the offence. He (Johnson) is going to try to go out there and win the race as well, but for me, he's going to have to beat us to do it. I feel like we're going to be strong when we get there. It's going to take a lot to beat us there," he said.
"You know, so for me, it's more relaxed going out there and saying I'm going to go out there and gain points this week, versus let's just manage a good finish and not lose a certain amount of points."
With three wins in the last five Martinsville races, odds are that Hamlin will be in the thick of things on Sunday. But, counting Johnson out would also be a mistake, considering his six career victories on the paper clip-like circuit.
Known for bump-and-grind, close-quarter racing, the 0.526-mile Martinsville short track features 15-second laps where there's little room for error and things can go wrong - fast. Inevitably, a late race restart after some carnage bunches up the field for a mad dash to the finish. And when that happens, count on Johnson to fight tooth and nail to the end.
"We're going to be gouging for every single point at that part of the race and the way the points are stacked up, the top-five are all guys that are really good at Martinsville," he said. "It could be exciting."
While being a four-time champion made Johnson the de facto favourite going into 2010, many chose Hamlin as the most likely title contender.
Although Hamlin feels confident as he begins the five-race run to the Cup, he also knows that the next two weekends will go a long way to deciding whether he can wrestle the Sprint Cup crown from Johnson's iron grip.
"It's not over by any means. In my mind, if you're 150 up with three races to go, you're looking pretty good. So I think it's going to have to depend on what happens [next weekend]in Talladega and this weekend as well," he said.
"We know our cars are fast enough to win races and we know our performance is good enough to win championships. How we manage the Chase is going to decide whether we're champions or not."
Ready or not, here we come
Formula One fans will soon see the wisdom or folly of the sport's sanctioning Federation Internationale de l'Automobile approving the new circuit at Yeongam only days prior to the South Korean Grand Prix.
At issue is the track surface which had its final layer of asphalt put down late last month, which may not have given it enough time to cure properly. Untested pavement is dubious at best as Canadian race fans might recall from troubles for a couple of years at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal following a resurfacing in 2005.
While the Montreal problem was fixed with patches to the troublesome spots, the series faced a similar situation in 1985 when the newly paved Spa-Francorchamps Circuit in Belgium broke up so badly in practice that the race was cancelled and rescheduled for later in the year.
In addition, the recently laid surface may prove challenging at best should the rain that's predicted in the area over the weekend leech the oils from the new asphalt. Under FiA rules, tracks are supposed to be given the green light at least 90 days prior to a grand prix. Construction delays caused that to be impossible for the South Korean circuit, which was given special permission to have a late inspection which occurred last week.
McLaren chief engineer Phil Prew walked the track on Wednesday and reported that the new surface didn't look "too bad."
"It wasn't particularly greasy underfoot and it looked - from what you can tell - smooth, well-laid, and consistent all the way around the circuit," he said on a conference call from South Korea. .
"I think track evolution will be the big player, and we just have to do what we always do, which is adapt the cars to the conditions that we find."