This year's Chase could be as good as it gets
Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Talladega, AL (Sports Network) -
Now that Talladega is in the rear-view mirror, the top-three drivers in the Chase -- Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick -- can all breathe a sigh of relief after leaving the "wild card" race unscathed.
With all three drivers finishing in the top-10 at Talladega and the points margin among them now at 38, this year's Chase is shaping up to be a real barn burner. Texas, Phoenix and Homestead remain on the schedule.
The points spread among Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick is the closest with three races three races to go in the season since the inception of the Chase in 2004.
"We've known all along that the No.11 [Hamlin] and the No.29 [Harvick] would be strong in all the Chase races, and my good tracks are their good tracks as well," said Johnson, the points leader. "These final three tracks I consider all good ones for this No 48 team, and I know they are for the No.11 and the No.29. I think the fans are going to have something exciting to watch, and it's a very small points margin right now."
In 2007, Jeff Gordon held just a nine-point lead over Johnson after Johnson won the 33rd race of the season (Atlanta). Johnson also won at Texas and Phoenix and then finished seventh at Homestead to clinch his second consecutive Sprint Cup title by a 77-point margin over Gordon.
Harvick has gained the most momentum among the top-three drivers in the last two races, finishing third at Martinsville and then a close second to his Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer at Talladega.
Bowyer slightly pulled ahead of Harvick for the lead just before the race went under caution on the final lap when A.J. Allmendinger's car went airborne and flipped along the frontstretch. It took NASCAR officials several minutes to review tapes of the finish and then declare Bowyer the winner.
Harvick second-place finish capped off a remarkable comeback after he suffered front-end damage during a multi-car crash with less than 50 laps left. Bowyer tapped Marcos Ambrose from behind and put him into a spin before Harvick rammed into Ambrose.
Johnson's seventh-place finish and Hamlin's ninth-place run allowed Harvick to gain ground on the two in the Chase.
"We came here to obviously lead some laps, run up front and try to win the race," Harvick said. "Obviously, we came up one short of that, but we beat the guys that we needed to."
Just before the half-way point in the race, Hamlin went a lap behind after he fell out of the draft. Hamlin overcame adversity when got back on the lead lap during the caution for Ambrose and Harvick's incident.
Hamlin said he was not pleased with his performance, but satisfied with the outcome.
"It's what I asked for," Hamlin said. "I asked for nobody to really get killed here this weekend and to let us settle it on the racetrack where our cars and our teams can make a difference, and we drivers can make a difference. That's what we got. We've got a tight one, and I'm looking forward to the last three [races]."
To prevent being caught up in a possible major wreck, Johnson ran conservatively until 16 laps to go when crew chief Chad Knaus told him over the team radio that it was time to get going.
And Johnson did, charging from 23rd to the lead within six laps, thanks to drafting help from Hendrick teammate Gordon. However, Gordon fell back in the draft when he experienced an issue with his engine, leaving Johnson to fend for himself.
If the points battle tightens up even more among Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick during the next couple of weeks, it certainly will make for a thrilling end to the season at Homestead.
Many race fans would love to see Hamlin or Harvick spoil Johnson's attempt for a record-extending fifth straight championship.
"No offense to [Johnson], but somebody else needs to win," Harvick jokingly said. "Everybody but them wants somebody else to win. I like Jimmie as good as anybody, but for the sake of the sport, one of the two of us needs to make something happen. I can promise you that."
Since the last two seasons have featured Johnson all but wrapping up the championship before the series arrived at Homestead, it's time for a dramatic conclusion in the Chase.