At the beginning of the Sprint Cup Chase, there were 12 contenders.
Now going into the final race, there are only three drivers left.
The past five races of the Sprint Cup Series Chase have been interesting to watch as the Chase has focused on Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick.
Denny Hamlin is looking to win his first championship after fighting through knee surgery.
Jimmie Johnson is looking to win his fifth championship in a row to extend his record.
Kevin Harvick is looking to win his first championship after leading the standings for most of the year.
Now before heading into the final event, let's take a look at those past five races with all the drama that took place.
Following Charlotte, Harvick sat third in points, 77 points behind then-leader Johnson, after finishing eighth.
Hamlin sat in second, 41 points behind, after finishing fourth. Hamlin started to show his determination there; the disappointment could be seen on his face, as he knew he’d lost ground to Johnson.
Johnson, meanwhile, finished second, after making an incredible comeback.
At the beginning of the race, Johnson had a really loose car, which caused him to spin. Once he was stuck back in traffic, it was thought that he'd be done.
However, like many times before, crew chief Chad Knaus pulled out the magic wand and got the car to where it was the quickest on the track.
Johnson drove from the back to lead the race for awhile, and then eventually settled for second.
Harvick showed he wasn’t backing out of it yet as he finished third, now sitting 62 points behind.
“I just have to thank everybody on this Shell-Pennzoil Chevrolet," Harvick said after that race. "Those guys on pit road were just awesome today and really kept us up front and in the race. That’s what we have to do. We kept the No. 48 (Johnson) behind us and the No. 11 (Hamlin) in sight.
"Everybody said this was going to be a two-horse race, and we were right there in the middle of it. So, today was a lot of fun. We came here and finished third at a track that we never had a top-five finish. Right now, we have four more weeks. I’m really looking forward to Talladega and just racing hard.”
Hamlin, meanwhile, made himself known as he won the race, closing the gap to just six points.
"We're back, baby," Hamlin said after the race. "Awesome job."
Johnson, though, held his ground as he finished fifth.
“Good top-five finish today. We certainly wanted to finish higher. But it's over and done with,” said Johnson afterwards. “It is what it is. Top five is something would have been a good goal coming in here this weekend.
"We're rolling into Talladega. We all know what can happen there. Happy to still be leading. Wish the margin had gone the other way. Denny won the race, closed it up. We'll buckle down, go to work the next four.”
Talladega was the next step on the line for the trio, in which it brought more drama to the Chase.
In a dramatic finish, Harvick barely missed the win by inches as the win went to teammate Clint Bowyer. Though he was still satisfied with how he did, considering he got damage in an earlier wreck.
"I didn't know when the caution came out, but I know I beat him to the line," Harvick said afterward. "I just got thank David Reutimann for the push....That's what we came to Talladega to do. We came to win the race, came up a spot short on that, but beat the guys we needed to."
The second-place finish allowed Harvick to gain points as he now sat 38 behind.
Hamlin, meanwhile, fought his own battles at Talladega as he got to ninth after coming back from being a lap down. This left him sitting 14 points back.
For Hamlin, that was enough as he was ready for the final stretch.
"I like that the championship will be decided on three race tracks where the drivers are in control," Hamlin said afterwards. "Let the best man win."
Johnson was looking for more, though a seventh place finish was all he could manage.
"It's not the best finish, but we'll take it," he said after the race. "I thought we had this thing in control and we could've hung on till the end."
From the Talladega highbanks, the series traveled to the lonestar state, where some of the biggest twists of the entire chase will be recalled from.
Harvick had a consistent day as he finished sixth.
Hamlin, though, made himself known as he took the lead with 29 to go and never looked back.
With the win, Hamlin took the lead in the championship standings by 33 points over Jimmie Johnson, who finished ninth.
“It was just a long day,” Johnson said. “We just gave away so much track position at the beginning and it was tough to get back to where we needed to.
“On the restart, it was the 16 spinning the tires on the restart and all those guys who took tires behind us.”
“It was pretty rough day for sure,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “We lost the track
position and when you get back there, you don’t know how you should tune on the car.”
The race was an eventful one for the No. 48 team that even included a pit crew swap.
Out of the first seven stops of the day, the No. 48 team lost spots on four of them, costing their driver valuable time. Once teammate Jeff Gordon was wrecked out of the race, Hendrick officials decided to use Gordon’s pit crew.
“Ultimately, it was my decision to make the decision as we were getting beat,” Knaus said. “I hope we get back with the 48 guys and get things back on track.”
“I’m okay with it,” front tire changer Mike Lingerfelt said. “We’re all team players.”
Johnson said, though despite everything, don’t count them out.
“I’ve lost plenty of championships in the past,” he said. “You’re not going to get everything you want every weekend. I can promise you this – 33 back is not where we want to be, but we’re going to work hard on getting it back.”
The change was set to stay in place heading into Phoenix, which the final run to the finish led to the championship standings growing even closer.
Harvick had issues during the day, including hitting the wall and a loose lug nut on a lap 224 pit stop. Harvick used it to his advantage as he pitted under the lap 233 caution, while most of the leaders stayed out, to be able to make it to the end and finish sixth.
“I was pretty down and I thought, ‘There it went,’” Harvick said. “We dodged one, for sure.”
Harvick now sits third in points, 46 points behind Hamlin.
Johnson also used the fuel card as he stretched it the last 88 laps to come home fifth and bring the gap from first to second to just 15 points.
“I’m so happy to put pressure on the No. 11 team,” Johnson said.
Hamlin, meanwhile, led a series high 190 laps before having to pit late for fuel, resulting in a 12th place finish.
“Knowing that we had a very, very good points lead with 15 or 20 to go, that quickly diminishes, it hurts,” Hamlin said. “It hurts when you have a car that can possibly win.
“So for me, I wasn’t aware that anyone was going to try to stretch it [on fuel] and make it. [Crew chief] Mike [Ford] didn’t make me aware that anyone was going to stretch it and make it so I went out there and ran as hard as I could. Unfortunately, our car didn’t have as good of fuel mileage as everyone else’s.”
The Sprint Cup Series now heads to the final event of the season – the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin looks to lock up the championship while Johnson and Harvick look to steal the trophy away.
For Hamlin not to worry about where Johnson or Harvick finish and just purely lock up the championship, he has to win or finish second while leading the most laps. If he falls beyond those two positions, depending on where Johnson finishes, he could lose the championship.
In a sense, for Johnson to win the title, he has to gain 16 points on Hamlin as if he ties, he loses virtue of the tie breaker.
If Johnson wins and leads the most laps, Hamlin has to finish second and tie him in the most laps led category.
If Johnson wins, but doesn’t lead the most laps, Hamlin has to finish second or finish third while leading at least one lap.
If Johnson finishes second while leading the most laps, Hamlin has to finish third or better without leading a lap, fourth or better with leading at least a lap or finish fifth and tie him for most laps led.
If Johnson finishes second while leading at least one lap, Hamlin has to finish fourth or better without leading a lap, fifth or better with leading at least a lap or finish sixth and lead the most laps.
If Johnson finishes second yet doesn’t lead, Hamlin has to finish fifth or better without leading a lap, sixth with leading at least a lap, or seventh and lead the most laps.
The scenarios can continue way beyond that as they are pretty much endless till you get Hamlin finishing last and not leading a lap.
However, there is also a third party – Harvick. Harvick could play a definite factor, depending on how he finishes.
For Harvick to win the championship, he is going to need to gain 47 points on Hamlin and 32 points on Johnson.
Let’s take a look at a couple of scenarios.
If Harvick was to win the race and lead the most laps, he’d need Hamlin to finish seventh or worse, eighth or worse if he led a lap or ninth or worse if he tied Harvick in leading the most. Harvick would then also need Johnson to finish fourth or worse, third or worse if he led a lap, or second or worse if he tied Harvick in most laps led.
If Harvick wins the race without leading the most, Hamlin needs to finish eighth or worse, ninth or worse if he leads, or 11th or worse if he leads the most. He then would need Johnson to also finish fifth or worse, sixth or worse if he led, or seventh or worse if he led the most laps.
If Harvick was to finish second with leading the most laps, he’d need Hamlin to finish 11th or worse, 12th or worse if he led or 14th or worse if he led the most laps. He then would also need Johnson to finish seventh or worse, eighth or worse if he led, or ninth or worse if he led the most laps.
If Harvick was to finish second with leading at least a lap but not the most, he’d need Hamlin to finish 12th or worse, 14th or worse if he led, or 15th or worse if he led the most. He then would need Johnson to finish eighth or worse, ninth or worse if he led, or 11th or worse if he led the most laps.
If Harvick was to finish second without leading a lap, he’d need Hamlin to finish 14th or worse, 15th or worse if he led, or 17th or worse if he led the most laps. He then would need Johnson to finish ninth or worse, 11th or worse if he led, or 12th or worse if he led the most laps.
Their past performances at Homestead-Miami would believe you to think that Harvick would have an advantage.
In Harvick’s past nine starts at Homestead-Miami, he has no wins, four top fives, seven top 10s and an average finish of 8.4. Last year he finished third while in 2008, he finished second.
For Johnson, in his past nine starts at Homestead-Miami, he has no wins, three top fives, six top 10s and an average finish of 12.7. Last year, he finished fifth while the year before, he finished 15th. Though Johnson has taken the conservative approach the last four years due to just looking to lock up the championship so with the need to push it, he could step up it up to a win.
Hamlin, meanwhile, has already done the duty of stepping it up to a win. In his five past starts, he has one win, three top fives, three top 10s and an average finish of 10.6. He is last year’s winner as he won the race to close out the season, making his claim then that he was going after the title this year.
As a whole, this looks to be one of the best championship fights that NASCAR has seen in awhile and it definitely will go down to the wire. Depending on what driver pushes it to most, what teams performs the best on pit road and what crew chief makes the best adjustments will determine who your 2010 champion is.