HOMESTEAD — The words were to the point, leaving no doubt about the rules of engagement for the 2010 Sprint Cup season.
"Boys, have at it, and have a good time," NASCAR's vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said in January.
Almost a year later, the good — and contentious — times continue to roll. In a season where drivers embraced their free pass to play bumper cars, the final run today at Homestead-Miami Speedway may bring the most dramatic scuffle of the 36-race grind.
Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick are within 46 points of each other in the chase for a Sprint Cup Championship. All three race for different teams. The circumstances dictate that gentlemanly decorum will not be the order of the day. The "have at it" rules will be in effect for each and every one of those 400 miles.
"I know what my approach will be, so … you do whatever's best for your team to win a championship," Harvick said. "That's whatever it takes."
"I'd agree with that," Hamlin said. "Same thing. You know, you would do what it takes to win a championship."
"After 36 points races at this point, the dreams of winning a championship that we all have, you'll do anything you can to win," Johnson said.
The aggressive attitudes could make today's Ford 400 one of the most exciting finishes in NASCAR history, and maybe one of the most controversial.
In an effort to shake things up and revive its core fan base, NASCAR loosened its policing policy this season. The new rules were mostly intended for super-speedways. NASCAR officials stopped regulating bump-drafting at Talladega.
But the loosey-goosey rules played out at other venues.
Carl Edwards intentionally flipped Brad Keselowski and his No. 12 Dodge with three laps to go in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The tap sent Keselowski's car airborne and crashing into the outside wall.
And just a few weeks ago, Chevy teammates Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton tussled after Burton took Gordon out of the race at Texas Motor Speedway. Gordon climbed out of his car and shoved Burton before the two were forced to sit and play nice on the ambulance ride to the infield care center.
Hamlin did admit he would be uncomfortable in a last-lap wreck-'em or not question that was posed to all drivers on Thursday.
"For me to say I would wreck a guy or turn a guy for a championship, I don't know how high I could hold that trophy," Hamlin said. "Hopefully I'll have many other years to do it the right way. If someone had to put the spotlight on me and say, 'You have to do this or not,' I'm not going to change the way I drive. I was raised in driving one way. … I'm not going to sell out. I'll say that."
But with so much at stake this afternoon, not everybody is buying Hamlin's contention that he will keep it clean.
"They're all gonna be aggressive," Edwards said. "That's the way it's gonna be, no matter what they say. That's how they got into the position they're in, and now it's gonna be a great race for everyone to watch."
That's exactly what NASCAR is hoping for in a year of dwindling interest in the sport. Television ratings have been down significantly throughout the 10-race playoff, and NASCAR officials can only hope a race to the finish in the Ford 400 will translate into more viewers.
After years of trying to go corporate, NASCAR is returning to its roots: the bump and grind of Sunday afternoons.
"If something is blatant, obviously that will get our attention," NASCAR CEO Brian France said. "But I would expect if two or three are going down to the wire, I've said it before, this is a contact sport. … You're going to get shoved around a little bit if somebody is trying to get by and you're trying to win, (or) a championship is on the line.
"We are not going to treat this race any differently than we would another. And despite how much is on the line, they have got to settle it on the track."
All three stakeholders in today's race have been put on notice. They know that playing nice may not be playing to win.
"We'll do whatever we have to do to win the championship," Harvick said. "And if it winds up hurting somebody's feelings, so be it."
Sprint Cup points
With one race to go. Only the top three drivers are still mathematically eligible in the Chase for the Championship.
Driver Pts. Back
Denny Hamlin 6,462—
Jimmie Johnson 6,447 15
Kevin Harvick 6,416 46
Carl Edwards 6,198 264
Matt Kenseth 6,151 311
Jeff Gordon 6,124 338
Kyle Busch 6,115 347
Greg Biffle 6,113 349
Tony Stewart 6,074 388
Kurt Busch 6,033 429
Clint Bowyer 6,028 434
Jeff Burton 5,958 504