He hasn't been in this position in three years. In Jimmie Johnson's last two championship seasons, he's held a healthy lead in the standings with three races left on the schedule. Not so in 2010. As the circuit heads to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, Johnson has only a 14-point cushion over Denny Hamlin and a 38-point edge over Kevin Harvick, which makes this season's race for the Cup tighter than any other in the Chase era, which began in 2004.
"This is going to be a great fight over the last three races," Johnson said moments after hopping out of his No. 48 Chevy last weekend at Talladega. "Hopefully our experience will work to our advantage."
Neither Hamlin nor Harvick, in fact, have been this close to a championship in their Cup careers. But, as I wrote in the magazine this week, Hamlin has stuck to a game plan that he crafted in the offseason and he's precisely where he wants to be. Why? Because Hamlin firmly believes he can outrun Johnson over these last three weeks. And, on paper, it certainly looks like he can. Hamlin is the reigning race winner on two of the last three tracks on the schedule (Texas and Miami-Homestead Speedway) and he's finished fifth or better in five of his last six starts at Phoenix, which is where the circuit will visit next week.
So who is my pick to win it all? I'm sticking with Hamlin, who was SI's preseason choice. I also like Hamlin to take the checkered flag on Sunday. He's one of five drivers to watch once the engines fire in the Lone Star State:
1. Denny Hamlin
In April, at Texas, Hamlin started 29th, patiently worked his way up through the field, and then held off Johnson over the final laps to win his first race at the 1.5-mile track. It wasn't a fluke. He came in second at Texas in the fall race last year and his career average finish here (9.6) is better than both Johnson's (10.1) and Harvick's (12.9).
On Sunday, Hamlin will be driving a new car that will feature all of Joe Gibbs Racing's latest and greatest technology. Hamlin has been looking forward to this race since December -- Texas is where he believed he could start to pull away from Johnson -- and it says here he gets the job done in style on Sunday.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson was adamant after the race at Talladega that the only way to win the championship this season is to run in the top-5 in each of the last three races and notch at least one victory, if not two. Johnson's best shot for a win will likely be next week at Phoenix, where he's taken four of the last six checkered flags, but he should be very, very fast on Sunday. He'll be driving a car that he last raced to a third-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"We need maximum points," Johnson says. "Of course, it's a little bit more forgiving or easy on your team and yourself with a big points lead. But we don't have that this year. We're going to have to race, and we're ready for it."
3. Kevin Harvick
In 15 career starts at Texas, Harvick has completed 5,008 laps. How many has he led? Four.
Still, Harvick has been strong this season on 1.5-mile tracks. In fact, over the last 10 races on 1.5-milers, he has scored more points than every driver except Johnson and Kyle Busch. Because Harvick hasn't consistently boasted the straight-line speed of Johnson and Hamlin this season, his strategy for these last three races is a little different. He believes he can win it all if he merely rips off three straight top-5 runs, which is something he's certainly capable of achieving. I just don't think that will ultimately score enough points to overtake Johnson and Hamlin.
4. Jeff Gordon
Gordon appeared to have a car capable of winning last week at Talladega until he experienced a problem with his engine late in the race, causing him to finish eighth. Still, Gordon looks like he's closing in on ending the longest winless streak of his career, now at 62 races.
In the April race at Texas, Gordon had a dominant car. He led 124 laps before crashing late. He'll run with the leaders for most of the afternoon at Texas and have a shot at the checkers.
5. Kyle Busch
Texas is one of Busch's better tracks on the schedule. Though he's never won here, he's finished sixth or better in five of his last eight starts.
Busch's Chase performance has been, in a word, disappointing. While Hamlin, his teammate at Gibbs, has shined, Busch has failed to finish in the top 20 in three of the last five races. Busch is an elite talent, but until he takes a page from Johnson and becomes more cautious behind the wheel, he won't win a championship. Yet no one in the sport is as entertaining to watch, because for better or worse, he is the embodiment of a win-or-wreck driver.