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Two to go in the closest Chase ever

It doesn’t get much closer than this. Just 39 points spanned the top three contenders as the Chase for the Sprint Cup headed for Texas Motor Speedway for last Sunday’s AAA Texas 500.
The previous closest top three after seven races of the Chase was 65 points in 2006. Many expected Talladega would shake things up and could work against one of the top three, Johnson, Hamlin or Harvick.

Instead, all three breathed a sigh of relief, as they all had a solid day in the only restrictor plate race in the Chase. Harvick finished second to his Richard Childress Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer. Harvick went into Talladega 61 points out of the lead, and was able to cut it down to just 38 points. Hamlin and Johnson finished seventh and ninth, respectively. Hamlin headed to Texas just 14 points behind the seemingly unbeatable Jimmie Johnson.
Last Sunday the momentum took a big swing in Denny Hamlin’s favor. On a day that saw the mighty Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus team have a really bad day late in the Chase, Hamlin drove the No. 11 Toyota to the win with Jimmie Johnson struggling to a ninth place finish and Hamlin winning his eighth race of the season. They head to Phoenix this weekend with Hamlin holding a 33 point lead over Johnson. Harvick has an outside chance. He is 59 points behind Hamlin.
“It’s what I asked for,” said Hamlin, heading into last weekend’s race. “Let us settle it on the race track where our car and our teams can make a difference and the drivers can make a difference. “We’ve got a tight one and I’m looking forward to the last three races.”
In Harvick’s view, this year’s champion will have to stay at the highest possible level. “Consistency is good, but isn’t likely to get the job done. I really think it’s one of the top three guys that is going to finish in the top five over the last three races. If you’re not able to do that and be in contention to lead laps, you’re probably not going to win the championship,” said Harvick after missing a Talladega season sweep by inches when the caution flag ended his duel with Bowyer on the final lap.
“You can’t get conservative. You can’t go hoping for a top ten because, as you’ve seen over the past few years, top fives, leading laps is what it’s going to take from here on out. I just believe it’s one of three cars that is going to do that and I hope we can keep the pace.”
Johnson, who entered the past two season’s final three races with leads of 183 and 184 points, agrees. “It’s really the same mentality. We need maximum points. Of course it’s a little bit more forgiving or easy on your team and yourself with a big points lead. But we don’t have that this year. We’re going to have to race and be ready for it.”
In an ironic twist to the ending of the Talladega race, Kevin Harvick could have been even closer to points leader Jimmie Johnson had teammate Clint Bowyer not taken the 15 points for the win by beating Harvick by inches at Talladega. Those 15 points might ultimately be the difference between Harvick and the 2010 championship. They’re pretty much worthless to Bowyer, whose own title hopes were ended when he received a 150 points penalty when his car failed the post race inspection after winning the first race in this year’s chase at new Hampshire.
After being stripped of the 150 points, Bowyer has pretty much been racing for pride. For that matter so are the other eight chase drivers who trail Johnson by more than 200 points. Each of the remaining chase drivers has the potential to be a spoiler heading into the final two races.
Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway is the 35th and next to last race of the 2010 season. The points leader following the 35th race has won the championship for all six years of the Chase format.
Jimmie Johnson, with four wins, has won the most races at Phoenix, including the past two fall races. He swept both Phoenix races in 2008. Kevin Harvick has won twice at Phoenix, sweeping both the spring and fall races in 2006. Denny Hamlin has finished third at Phoenix on four occasions, most recently in the fall race last season.
You may reach Pete Barber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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