By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
NASCAR’s Race to the Chase, the final regular season races that determine which 12 drivers will compete for the championship over the final 10 races, is down to three races – at Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway. And the big question now is whether points leader and Michigan winner Kevin Harvick has replaced four-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson as the pre-Chase favorite.
After his dominating win at Michigan on Sunday – his third triumph of the season – Harvick clinched his spot in the 10-race run to the title. Now he has the luxury of using the next three races to prepare for the Chase and to try to add to his bonus point total. Each regular season win is worth 10 points when the Chase starts, and at this point both Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have 50 apiece.
Harvick said he plans to enjoy the upcoming stretch of the schedule.
“Right now we’re in a fortunate position to be doing what we’re doing,” he said. “I’ve been in that 12th-, 13th-place battle … You can’t sleep at night, you can’t do anything to get your mind off of that.
“We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to go and race hard. We’re going to try to gain 30 more bonus points. Hopefully we can have a couple things that we can try … whether it’s engines, parts, pieces, over the next three weeks [we’ll] try to get a little bit better.
“We’re going to enjoy it and we’re going to hopefully be ready for the last 10 weeks.”
For Johnson and the No. 48 team, a mid-season swoon is nothing new, but the timing this year isn’t the best for the team. After scoring back-to-back wins at Infineon Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Johnson has run six races with just one top-10 finish, a 10th a Pocono.
At Michigan, he finished 12th after leading early on. It was a repeat in many ways of his recent runs.
“We started the race good and faded a little bit in the middle of the race when things started to slip from us,” he said in his post-race interview. “We did a good job of keeping our heads in the game and not letting it beat us down, start making bad decisions.
It’s definitely not the finish we wanted, but I think it was a big victory in a lot of other areas.
“At a few races this year we’ve had some struggles, and you can all get frustrated and start making mistakes, but we kept our head in the game.”
Despite Johnson’s recent struggles and Harvick’s rock-solid performance all season, Harvick wasn’t quite ready to declare himself the new Chase favorite.
“I think over the last four years, you can look at the 48 and they’ve done the same thing and won the championship,” he said. “We’re fast enough to beat ’em, but the circumstances and all the things have to go your way over the last 10 weeks … it’s not about a whole season anymore, it’s about 10 weeks.
“They’re going to start pretty much dead even or a little bit ahead of us. Hopefully we can keep doing the same thing that we’re doing. It’s like saying you’re going to beat somebody that’s won the last four Super Bowls. Until you beat that guy, there’s no reason to put that pressure on ourselves, I don’t think.”
There’s still plenty of pressure to go around among the top 12, although some, like Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, have been plenty solid. Stewart is winless, but he’s only had one finish outside the top 10 since back in May, at Charlotte. Along the way, he’s posted five top-five and nine top-10 finishes.
Edwards also is winless, but he hasn’t finished worse than seventh in the past six races.
Jeff Gordon, also winless, has been consistently fast, too. He struggled to a 27th-place finish at Michigan after blowing a tire, but he has six top-six finishes in the past nine races.
Denny Hamlin, who has cooled off some after winning five races, has two top-five finishes in the past three races.
But other Chase contenders have struggled, most notably Mark Martin, who has posted just one top-10 finish, a seventh at Pocono, since May.
He’s dropped to 13th in the standings, 35 points out of the elite group after a 28th-place run at Michigan.
Afterward, he didn’t sound too optimistic about his chances of competing for the title.
“I don’t know what they are,” he said. “We’ll keep digging. I don’t know. Every race is a new race.”
The Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, also seem to be fading down the homestretch.
Kurt Busch has run well, but has run into misfortune not of his own making. He wrecked at Pocono, then finished second at Watkins Glen, then blew an engine at Michigan.
Kyle Busch has posted just two top-10 finishes in the past nine races, and both of those were eighth-place efforts – at Watkins Glen and Indianapolis.