NASCAR Sprint Cup: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick Validate Chase

Hank EptonCorrespondent IOctober 25, 2010

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin side by side at Martinsville Speedway, Sunday, October 24, 2010.
Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin side by side at Martinsville Speedway, Sunday, October 24, 2010.John Harrelson/Getty Images

Denny Hamlin took a seat Sunday after beating Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson at the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville, VA.

“Who said it was over? Told you it wasn’t over.”

He’s right.

Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are locked in the tightest points race since Johnson’s first Sprint Cup Championship in 2006.

Compared to the last four seasons, this is the first time since 2006 that more than one driver has been inside of 100 points of the leader coming out of Martinsville.

It’s been three years since any driver has been within 100 points of the lead at this point, when Jimmie Johnson sat 53 markers behind Jeff Gordon en route to his second title.

Hamlin and Harvick are making this one interesting.

To this point in the Chase, all three of the top contenders are finishing on average within one position of each other: Johnson 6.5, Hamlin 6 and Harvick 6.8.

The trio leads all drivers with laps running in the top 15, with Johnson having a huge advantage in that category due to his better starting position; his average start of eighth puts him in a much better position to run most of the races up front, while Hamlin and Harvick claw their way forward from average starts of 16th and 21st respectively.

Despite starting at a disadvantage, Hamlin and Harvick are finding Jimmie Johnson on the racetrack.

“For a long time I thought the 29, the 11 and us were going to finish in sequential order. We were around each other all day long,” Johnson observed after his fifth place finish at Martinsville, his fifth top five in a row out of six Chase races.

Yesterday, Johnson saw something he doesn’t see a lot in October--his lead dwindled.

Going into Martinsville, he had 41 points on Hamlin, 77 on Harvick. Now, all three are within 62 points and Hamlin is just six points back. That’s just two positions in the finishing order.

Harvick's 62 point deficit is the difference between a win and 12th place.

This week, all three get dealt a wild card at Talladega.

Restrictor plate racing leads to the wild points swings due to the bumper to bumper racing and penchant for “the big one.”

White knuckle weekend is looming, and defending champ Jimmie Johnson knows plate racing can change everything.

“I'm really trying to not be emotionally attached to things until we get out of Talladega. So much can happen at Talladega,” Johnson said Sunday.

“Last year, Mark, catch(ing) me in the points, right there with me on the points, I'm running sixth on the track, he's running seventh coming to the checkered flag, his car gets hit, he gets hit, he is upside down. I'm just one spot ahead of him. I finish the race, get a bunch of points.”

So far, Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick are putting on a show and Talladega could be the twist in the plot.

For the fans, maybe the best way to get out of Talladega would be for Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick all to escape without a scratch, then the last three races become a three man race.

If it’s that close when the haulers leave Alabama next Sunday night, maybe Johnson’s prediction will come true.

“Three races left after that. If we're close, we'll race like hell.”

Racing like hell to Homestead might just be the shot in the arm NASCAR needs.


Coming Thursday: Kevin Harvick is Foot to the Floor Favorite at Talladega