It's Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, and no one else really matters. Except this week. Everyone and everything matters at Talladega Superspeedway, where one twitch, bobble or nefarious thought can unravel a whole season.
The high banks and high speeds of Talladega Superspeedway have the potential to alter both the position and the point totals drastically this Sunday, and Johnson could be dropped in the draft and shuffled behind Hamlin. But he has a history of success at Talladega, also, and has made major strides since causing a 25-car wreck in May 2005 that prompted restrictor plate savant Dale Earnhardt Jr. to deem him "an idiot." Johnson, who has won consecutive poles at Talladega, has a win, two runner-up finishes and a five top-10s at the track since 2006. Of course, he wrecked out late in two of the last three, but was sixth in the fall race in 2009. Not exactly firm footing, even by Talladega standards, but better than ...
Harvick entered Talladega this spring awash in speculation about his contract status and reportedly acrimonious relationship with his team owner. And then he went out and passed Jamie McMurray in the final mile of a third green-white-checker attempt to win his first race since 2007. But he hardly dominated, coming from the back and leading two laps.
Johnson could eventually sync with teammate Jeff Gordon, but assistance would seemingly be no guarantee considering their combative on-track relationship this season, and that Gordon is attempting not to finish winless for the second time in three seasons.
Hamlin has a strong plate-racing teammate in Kyle Busch, but he, too, figures to be most concerned -- as he should be -- for personal accomplishment, especially considering his most recent Chase underachievement.
Harvick and teammate Clint Bowyer have already tapped the goodwill till with an exchange of pit crews, but Burton left Martinsville agitated by the tactics and tone of his title-contending partner following an on-track incident.
Is Joey Logano feeling devilish? Hamlin's teammate has never been in a better position to vent his frustration with Harvick over early on-track incidents. Thirty-one races worth of baggage for each driver expands the flow chart of hidden agendas exponentially. And then there's the chance a driver makes a mistake in a 200-mph freight train, wobbles and ruins half the field and Johnson, Hamlin or Harvick among them.
"The race is on after Talladega," Mark Martin quipped at the Martinsville postrace news conference. "Nobody knows what's going to happen."
Added Johnson: "Not getting involved. Not worrying. Three races left after that. If we're close, we'll race like hell."