By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
The Talladega wild card has been played, and there’s still a close battle for the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup. After the top three drivers in the points standings all finished in the top 10 in the Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the series heads into the final three events with Jimmie Johnson leading Denny Hamlin by 14 and Kevin Harvick by 38.
That’s the closest points margin among the top three with three races to go since the Chase format was adopted in 2004, and it’s exactly what NASCAR officials were looking for when they instituted the 12-driver, 10-race season-ending method of determining a champion.
And as Harvick said, while sitting next to Johnson in the press room after the race, it opens the door for something that many of the sport’s fans badly want to see – a different champion.
“No offense to him, but somebody else needs to win,” Harvick said, looking over at Johnson.
“Says who?” Johnson replied, laughing.
Then Harvick laid it out, laughing at times but completely serious otherwise.
“Everybody but [Johnson and his team] wants somebody else to win,” Harvick said. “I like Jimmie as good as anybody. But for the sake of the sport, one of the two of us [Harvick or Hamlin] needs to make something happen. I can promise you that.”
But Harvick said it won’t be easy to knock off a team that has won four straight titles and has finishes of first, second, third, third, fifth and seventh in the past six races.
“When 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 and the 11 – to go out and knock those top fives off and not make any mistakes,” Harvick said. “When you go back and look at the stats over the last four years, top 10s do not cut it. You got to be in the top five and being up front every week.
“It’s the same pace that [Johnson’s] had this year, it’s just the two of us have done a lot of the same things … It’s important to continue to do that over the next three weeks.”
Johnson said he’s not surprised the points race is shaking out like it is.
“The way [Harvick] ran through the first 26 [regular season races], I would definitely have picked [him],” Johnson said. “A lot of people argued the point that us and [Hamlin’s No. 11 team] were kind of out of sorts when the Chase started. I think inside the garage area, we all expected the 48 and the 11 to be where they needed to. We ran good the last couple races to show that before the Chase started.
“These guys have been so consistent all year, didn’t matter if it was a short track, big track, superspeedways. I’m not surprised to be racing these two.”
The way previous championship battles have gone, it looks like there’s a good chance the title won’t be decided until the final lap of the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and it looks like the three now at the top of the heap are the only ones left with a realistic chance to win the title.
The 12th-place driver in the Chase, Clint Bowyer, got the victory at Talladega, one that took officials some time to determine as the race ended under caution for a wreck in Turn One on the last lap, but he’s out of the title hunt after being docked 150 points for a problem on his car following his victory in the Chase opener at New Hampshire.
His win didn’t even move him out of the 12th spot in the standings.
Fourth-place Jeff Gordon is 207 points out of the lead, and fifth-place Kyle Busch is 230 back. From Tony Stewart in seventh on down, the rest of the Chasers are more than 300 points behind.
“We really have been out of it the last few weeks,” Gordon said. “So I feel like you are going to have guys like us trying to win, and then you are going to have those three [Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick] really battling it out.”