No one's unbeatable in 2010 Chase

RICHMOND, Va. -- Eleven men will start the Sprint Cup playoff chasing Denny Hamlin. And all 11 of them truly believe they can catch him.

Hamlin's victory Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway makes him the flavor of the day as the Chase field is set, not bad for a guy who hadn't won a race since June and had a worrisome engine failure last week.

Six days ago it was Tony Stewart as the hot driver, going to Victory Lane at Atlanta with his first win of the season. It appeared Stewart was peaking at the right time.

Maybe not. Saturday night on the Richmond short track, Stewart didn't even finish on the lead lap.

This is no knock on Stewart or Hamlin. It's a statement about the competition. No one is unbeatable, including four-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished third Saturday.

"Superman hasn't lost his cape, but it's a lot shorter than years past,'' said Clint Bowyer, who easily secured the final Chase spot with his sixth-place finish at Richmond. "We're gonna give him a run for his money this year."

Bowyer enters the Chase winless, as do four other drivers -- Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth.

Hamlin goes to Loudon, N.H., next week with six victories this year (and the 60 bonus points that go with it) to start the Chase. Johnson has five victories.

But not one is dominant. No one is consistently out front. And, conversely, no Chaser comes in as a slacker.

"I believe this is the best shot we've ever had to win a championship," said Bowyer, who is a playoff driver for the third time in his career. "The last month was really good for us. We want to ride that wave. It's all in now and hopefully the cards fall in our favor."

Bowyer needed to finish only 28th or better Saturday to earn the 12th spot in the Chase over Ryan Newman. The issue never was in doubt. Bowyer ran near the front all night.

There was no race to the Chase, but the race in the Chase could be a different story.

The new guys for the 2010 playoff are all Richard Childress Racing drivers -- Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, who was the surprising regular-season points leader after missing the Chase last season.

"It's been a phenomenal year," Harvick said. "I'm happy with where we are compared to where we were. We've been the best team for 26 weeks, and hopefully, we can be the best team for 10 more.

"On what we thought a terrible night tonight, we finished ninth. That's what we've done and what we have to keep doing. I feel this team is the most prepared we've ever been for the Chase."

It's an easy thing to say, but he means it. They all do. This Chase is wide open.

"Just looking at the last month, I think you have five or six cars that really can race for the championship,'' Johnson said. "Outside of that, the other guys are finding more speed, also.

"This year, it's really tough. We've had some streaky guys. I don't know how to handicap it or who to fear the most."

But Johnson isn't ready to give up his crown, even if the other contenders see him as vulnerable.

"If they think I'm vulnerable, it's my job to qualify on the pole at Loudon and win the race," Johnson said. "I'm just concerned about getting the damn job done.

"It's weird, man. People draw conclusions however they want. I've never been one to play into that stuff. I just let things take care of themselves on the track. After finishing third here and last week at Atlanta, we've got our mojo back."

Kyle Busch feels he has his momentum back after finishing second to Hamlin Saturday night. Busch, who won at Bristol and finished fifth at Atlanta in the previous two races, gave his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate a battle in the final laps at Richmond before settling for the runner-up spot.

Kyle will start the Chase tied with Harvick as the No. 3 seed, 30 points behind Hamlin. But Busch doesn't think that matters.

"You can't count out anybody," Busch said. "I could pick three racetracks [in the Chase] where every driver is really good."

No one feels hopeless, including Matt Kenseth, who has gone through three crew chiefs this season to try to get better.

"Our performance has been getting better lately," Kenseth said. "Now we have to show we can run up front with those guys."

Stewart, the only man to win in the old points format and the Chase format, sees no advantages for anyone this time.

"I think this is the most competitive Chase field we've ever had,'' Stewart said.

So does Carl Edwards, who thinks Johnson's dynasty is in jeopardy.

"It's anyone's race more than ever this year," Edwards said. "Jimmie has been this best at this, so he could prove me wrong, but I don't believe he'll do that."

Johnson is ready for the challenge and the pressure that comes with it.

"When we all wake up Monday morning, a pit develops in your stomach that doesn't go away," Johnson said. "It's the championship pit. Our guys have dealt with it well the last four years and won the title. If we don't do it this time, it won't be from a lack of effort."

This isn't just the Chase for the championship. It's the chance for the championship, a year where the theme is honest optimism all around.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.