Johnson, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion is 14 points up on Hamlin and 38 ahead of Harvick heading to next week’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. All three drivers had solid top-10 runs at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, where Harvick finished second to his Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer in the Amp Energy Juice 500, while Johnson was seventh, two spots ahead of Hamlin.
“We've gone through seven (Chase) races, and you can throw a blanket over the three of us,” said Harvick. “It's really going to just come down to dotting the Is, crossing the Ts, keeping that performance level where it needs to be. If you go to one of those three tracks, if it's your off week, you're in trouble.”
The interesting this is, all three drivers had opportunities squandered, yet all three made great saves, too:
• Johnson lost his late-race push from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and drafting partner Jeff Gordon briefly when Gordon thought his engine was on the verge of exploding. On the first lap of the last restart on lap 185 of the 188-lap race, Johnson fell all the way back to 18th-place, before rallying back to finish seventh. That was a 37-point swing right there.
On the other hand, had Gordon stayed with Johnson the whole time, Gordon might have pushed the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet to victory, which would have broken the Chase wide open.
• Harvick made a brilliant save when Marcos Ambrose crashed in front of him three-quarters of the way through the race. Harvick’s Chase absolutely could have ended right there. But Harvick drove defensively and his crew did a great job patching his car up.
Then again, he took the white flag ahead of Bowyer, but ending up losing to his teammate, costing himself 15 precious points, points that could prove difficult if not impossible to make up over the two guys ahead of him.
• Hamlin spent a lot of the race a full lap down after losing the lead draft. He easily could have finished 30th and lost all hope of a championship right then and there.
On the last lap, though, Hamlin lost probably 20 points when Mark Martin, who had been pushing him, pulled off his bumper.
The bottom line was that there was plenty of woulda, coulda, shoulda — good and bad — for all three of the title contenders in the closing laps.
Some questions to be followed up on in Texas this weekend:
• With the championship on the line, teammates at RCR and Hendrick Motorspors gave each other critical help in the final four-lap sprint to the checkered flag. If I’m Denny Hamlin, I’m wondering why Kyle Busch or Joey Logano wasn’t glued to my rear bumper the whole time.
• As much as Toyota covets a first Sprint Cup championship and as much as the manufacturer has stressed teamwork among its race squads, why did David Reutimann’s Toyota push Harvick’s Chevrolet so long during the race? That was a real shocker to see.
• Did Martin deliberately get on Hamlin’s bumper and then with ill-intent pull off on the last lap? Hamlin seemed to think so, but it’s hard to imagine Martin doing something so calculating.
And the biggest question of all: Who’s going to be the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion? Three races from now, we’ll know the answer. But until then, it’s off to Texas for what should be another fascinating weekend.
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.