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CUP: Johnson Still Leads Tight Race

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Jimmie Johnson didn’t win at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, but he ran well enough to stay out front in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points battle with just three races to go in the 2010 season.

Johnson’s seventh-place finish in the Amp Energy Juice 500, coupled with a ninth-place run by Denny Hamlin and a runner-up finish by Kevin Harvick means Johnson’s points lead is now 14 over Hamlin and 38 over Harvick. It’s the tightest three-way points race at this juncture of the season since the Chase format was adopted in 2004.

It was an odd race for Johnson, who hung back for most of the event and finally hooked up with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who pushed Johnson into the lead on Lap 178 of the 188-lap race. But Gordon felt something amiss in his engine and dropped back. Then, on Lap 182, the caution flew for debris.

On the restart on Lap 185, Johnson was second, but immediately lost the front draft, falling all the way to 18th in the span of a single lap. As it turned out, Gordon’s motor wasn’t getting ready to blow, it was only leaking oil, and the closing laps, the two four-time champions pushed each other again, Johnson taking the checkered flag seventh, one spot ahead of Gordon.

So on the one hand, Johnson didn’t get the finish he wanted, but on the other, he dodged a major bullet.

“Not a bad finish. We'll take it,” Johnson said. “ ... It's going to be an awesome championship battle all the way to Homestead. I'm really looking forward to it.”

Asked what his strategy was for the final three races of the season, Johnson said, “All out.”

And so it’s off to Texas, Phoenix and Miami to settle the championship.

“We need to be as competitive and as fast as we can possibly be at this point,” said Johnson. “We're going to three tracks that are good for all three competitors. As Kevin as saying earlier, you're going to have to run in the top five to stay in the game. Then obviously take advantage of things and win if you can. “Ten extra points from first to second are going to be important. Leading laps, leading the most laps, you're going to have to be on your A game from here on out.”

Indeed.

Here’s how the 12 Chase drivers compare following seven races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup:

1. JIMMIE JOHNSON, Hendrick Motorsports, 7th place in the race — In a crazy afternoon, Johnson padded his lead slightly to 14 over second-place Denny Hamlin, though race runner-up Kevin Harvick tightened the margin back to third. It is now a wide open, three-man battle for the championship. 6,149 points.

2. DENNY HAMLIN, Joe Gibbs Racing, 9th — Although he is still very much in the championship hunt, Hamlin finished behind both Johnson and Harvick, losing precious ground on a day where he didn’t run especially well.6,135 points.

3. KEVIN HARVICK, Richard Childress Racing, 2nd — It was a great afternoon for Harvick, who recovered from a damaged nose on Lap 134 to finish second behind his RCR teammate Clint Bowyer. What could have been a disaster turned into a positive points day. 6,111 points.

4. JEFF GORDON, Hendrick Motorsports, 8th — Gordon thought his engine was blowing up as he and Johnson were working their way to the front. He fell back, then changed forward at the end. Another race where he had a chance to win and didn’t.5,942 points.

5. KYLE BUSCH, Joe Gibbs Racing, 18th — Busch got shuffled out of the lead back at the end of the race and had a very disappointing finish. He’s now 1-57 in Chase races.5,919 points.

6. CARL EDWARDS, Roush Fenway Racing, 17th — Like teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, Edwards had a day that was good not great, with a top-20 run.5,902 points.

7. TONY STEWART, Stewart-Haas Racing, 31st — Very early in the race, Stewart had a flat tire and went two laps down, which effectively ended shot he had at being a factor. 5,832 points.

8. MATT KENSETH, Roush Fenway Racing, 16th — Late-race drafting strategy didn’t work well for the 2003 series champion, who lost his drafting partner on the final restart and faded in the end.5,825 points.

9. KURT BUSCH, Penske Racing, 30th — Never much of a factor all race long, Busch’s afternoon fell well short of expectations of what on paper appeared to be a chance for a good run.5,799 points.

10. JEFF BURTON, Richard Childress Racing, 41st — The hard luck racer of the day was Burton, who got lined up incorrectly with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Burton got bump drafted out of shape and crashed out.5,797 points.

11. GREG BIFFLE, Roush Fenway Racing, 19th — For a time, Biffle and Paul Menard drafted well together, but Biffle got hung on the outside on the last restart and lost critical momentum in the final laps. 5,788 points.

12. CLINT BOWYER, Richard Childress Racing, 1st — It was another Chase victory for Bowyer as the RCR Chevys were clearly the class of the field on Sunday.5,782 points.

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.