With Jimmie Johnson clinging to a 14-point lead over Denny Hamlin and a 38-point lead over Kevin Harvick, the 2010 Sprint Cup title not only will come down to the driver who performs best, but the team that makes the fewest mistakes.
All three drivers have a solid record at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
Hamlin won at Texas in April and at Homestead last year. Johnson, meanwhile, has won the last three Chase races at Phoenix. Harvick has two career wins at Phoenix and seven top-10s each at Texas and Homestead.
But among the three drivers, there is still a sense that the title will be won by the team that makes the fewest mistakes.
“For me it’s all about not making a mistake,” Harvick said. “I think if you make a mistake, obviously there’s three guys, of those three, everybody’s not going to make a mistake.
“You’re going to have to run in the top five and have a chance to win, in my opinion. Forcing it usually leads to mistakes. So if it happens, it happens.”
Johnson said he expects all three teams to run well in the final three races, and that’s why mistakes will make the biggest difference.
“The only way you’ll really get separation with three to go, three teams involved, is two of the guys having bad luck, having something go wrong,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we’re going to get separated by much. I think it’s going to be a small margin all the way to the end.”
Last year, Johnson had enough of a cushion at this point in the Chase that he crashed early at Texas and he still cruised to the championship.
This year, that won’t be the case.
“Whoever can top-five out the rest of the year is going to be the guy,” said Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus. “At Texas last year we wrecked on lap 2. If that happens to any one of the three guys, that’s going to take them out the rest of the year.”
After the chaotic nature of Talladega, the drivers and teams are happy that their performance, even if it’s a mistake, will play a major role in the results.
“You’re not rewarded for anything you do [at Talladega],” Hamlin crew chief Mike Ford said. “It is what it is. I’m glad that it is a tight Chase where it matters and you have got somewhat control over your destiny.”
Harvick team owner Richard Childress thinks one of the three will win in the final three races.
Johnson has five career wins at those tracks (four at Phoenix, one at Texas), Hamlin has two (one at Texas, one at Homestead) and Harvick has two (both at Phoenix).
“I think whoever can sit there and pull off some wins is going to be the team to win the championship,” Childress said. “We have to give everything we got.”
Winning a race is worth 15 points over the second-place finisher. The rest of the positions are separated by five points (second-sixth), four (seventh-11th) or three (12th-36th). Five points are awarded for leading a lap and 10 for leading the most laps.
“We’re going to three tracks that are good for all three competitors,” Johnson said. “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.
“[The] 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.”
Harvick hopes that he or Hamlin can end Johnson’s four-year reign as champion.
“I like Jimmie as good as anybody, but for the sake of the sport, one of the two of us needs to make something happen,” Harvick said with only a hint of sarcasm. “I can promise you that.
“What these guys have done, what they’ve done over the last four years, the Chase started, they’re right back on track. It was important for the two of us as teams, speaking of the 29 [of myself] and the 11 [of Hamlin], to go out and knock those top-fives off and not make any mistakes. When you go back and look at the stats over the last four years, top-10s do not cut it.”
Logano On A Hot Streak
Joey Logano finished fifth at Talladega for his third top-five finish and fifth top-10 finish in his last eight races.
He has only one finish of worse than 17th in those eight events.
“We had a good car and just had to be patient the whole race. That was the toughest part, trying to be patient and riding behind these guys and waiting to position yourself there at the end,” Logano said. “I was pretty comfortable when I was in the top seven or eight there with about 20 to go. [I] felt like that was where I needed to be and didn’t do anything stupid.”
Two Straight Top-10s For Keselowski
Brad Keselowski did not have a top-10 finish all season until he placed 10th at Martinsville in the 32nd Sprint Cup race the year.
He matched that with another 10th-place run at Talladega.
“It’s Talladega,” Keselowski said. “We survived. The car is one piece and we ran strong most of the day. We’ll take it.”
Prior to Talladega, Keselowski admitted that it had been a frustrating year.
“We’ve had weeks where I’ve felt that we’ve run good, but the majority hasn’t been that way,” Keselowski said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”