Johnson, Hamlin primed to deliver epic Chase finish to NASCAR

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At the very least they are creating the most intriguing of the seven installments of NASCAR's format for determining the Sprint Cup champion. With four weeks remaining in the season and just six points between them, they have created the possibility of a true ultimate, decisive final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which would, of course, be a boon for Ford, which sponsors the entire weekend, and could use a little help from the Chevrolet-driving Johnson and Toyota-powered Hamlin.

And then there's Kevin Harvick, the outsider who can't play nice and would be thrilled to ruin it for both. This thing is getting good.

Here are five things we learned after Martinsville:

1. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, game on. Hamlin mapped out how his Chase would proceed, setting realistic expectations and attainable goals until the sixth race at Martinsville. A third straight win at Martinsville Speedway and a tightening of the proverbial screws on Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, fit those parameters.

Johnson has seen enough as the only driver to compete in all seven Chases not to make more vague checklists. He was just hoping to continue a late-summer swell, pile top-5 finishes high and reap the experience of becoming the playoff format's undisputed master.

His and Hamlin's separate ambitions and expectations intersected at NASCAR's shortest track on Sunday, where they had combined to win the last eight races -- the last two by Hamlin. Both got what they wanted. But it felt like a win for Hamlin, who roared from sixth on a final pit stop to win his seventh race of the season while Johnson lost two positions on a long final run as his No. 48 Chevrolet faded.

Ultimately, Johnson lasts one more week as the points leader, albeit 35 points less after finishing fifth. He'll enter the fourth-to-last race at Talladega next week with a slender lead over Hamlin. Amid it all, Johnson and Hamlin are forging what is shaping into the most dramatic points finish in Chase history. The smallest previous margin between the leader and runner-up at this point had been Tony Stewart's 15-point bulge over Johnson in 2005. Stewart held on. Johnson is for now, and Hamlin said he likes it that way. For now.

"Obviously, we'd love to have a huge lead right now," he said. "I think, given how I raced and things like that over the course of this Chase so far, this is about the best-case scenario for us.

"I like being behind and chasing a guy. I do not like playing defense at all. So, I mean, to come here and play offense all day, going through adversity to get this win, it's a huge boost going forward. Right now I feel like we're in a great position going to Talladega, where, who knows, we could both finish 41, 42, or opposite spectrums. Nobody knows once we go next week. I know we've been extremely strong at Talladega for the last two to three years. So I'm pretty confident."

Hamlin admitted that a poor finish on Sunday would have been devastating.

"Had we lost points to him here, probably would have been a big blow as far as my confidence going forward," he said, "because obviously this is probably my best racetrack. It's his best racetrack. I feel like I have been better than him in the last couple years."

Johnson said he hadn't yet reached his point in the Chase where he begins to dwell on points totals. That doesn't happen until the Chase departs Talladega, he said. The Talladega race had already been run when Stewart left Martinsville in 2005, with the more staid Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead remaining.

"[Forty-one points is] not a huge amount," Johnson said. "You hate to see it vanish. I'm really trying to not be emotionally attached to things until we get out of Talladega. So much can happen at Talladega. Last year, Mark [Martin was] right there with me on the points, I'm running sixth on the track, he's running seventh coming to the checkered flag, his car gets hit, he gets hit, he is upside down. I'm just one spot ahead of him. I finish the race, get a bunch of points."

2. No more Johnson conspiracy theories. With his car slumping behind Hamlin and Kyle Busch and Mark Martin closing quickly, Johnson could have benefited mightily from a caution flag in the closing laps. A quick stop would have refreshed a car that was superb on short runs. But at a track where cautions are plentiful, in a race where 15 cautions were issued, in a final 40 laps where three cars slowed on the track -- including Travis Kvapil's with a blown motor -- the final 98 went green.

Johnson, who with spotter Earl Barban was complaining of a drizzle of oil on the track for NASCAR officials to hear, said it wouldn't have been an issue under normal circumstances, as he's normally better on longer runs at Martinsville. He took responsibility for an "over-adjusted" car that changed the normal characteristics of their No. 48 Chevrolets there. "It did hurt us with it staying green," he said. "Typically, it's good for me when it stays green, but it was just circumstances [Sunday]."

3. Kevin Harvicks in rearview mirrors are larger than they appear. Focus logically shifted upon Johnson and Hamlin this weekend because of their points positions and utter domination of racing at Martinsville. But with a third-place finish on Sunday, advancing quickly from a 36th starting position, Harvick sliced 15 points off his deficit entering a track where he won this spring. Even with the uncertainty restrictor-plate racing in general and Talladega in particular engenders, Harvick, who has won the series last two plate races, could be poised to leap headlong from third place in points into a three-man battle for the championship.

4. Richard Childress Racing is all-hands-on deck for Harvick bid ... and not. With Clint Bowyer languishing in 12th place following a devastating 150-point penalty after a win at New Hampshire, RCR officials traded his pit crew with a unit Harvick has often scolded during races. Harvick beamed about the switch after the race. He was not so pleased with teammate Jeff Burton, also a Chase-qualifier, for the way he raced him midway through the event. Burton, regarded as a measured citizen in the garage, was displeased.

"There will come a point when he realizes that everybody in the world is not against him. And every time it's a conflict he is involved," said Burton, who led five times for a race-high 134 laps and finished ninth. "And you would think over the amount of years that he has done it, that he would get the hint that he is always in the middle of it and maybe sometimes if he just backed up a little bit and caught his breath, he would be okay. I'm not out to harm him. I am a teammate of his and I am trying to help him and there comes a point where he needs to just catch his breath and realize that it's my racetrack too. And I didn't do anything wrong. If he thinks I did anything wrong, then we can't race and there is nothing that I did that I regret and there is nothing I won't do next week."

5. Red Bull gives Kasey Kahne hope as Richard Petty Motorsports flails behind him. Kahne has enjoyed a Dale Earnhardt Jr.-like collective benefit of the doubt, in regard to his performance since he broke into Sprint Cup in 2004. He's waned statistically since becoming a six-race winner in 2006, when he finished eighth in points for Evernham Motorsports, sustaining a series of team transmutations since, with George Gillett Jr. and subsequently Richard Petty becoming the boss, or at least figurehead boss of his race organization. He qualified the Chase last season, became the icon of hope for RPM, but was discovered to have signed a deal with Hendrick Motorsports for 2012. A growing mutual agitation within the team led to his release this week. A true fresh start began on Sunday with a 14th-place finish in the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota, which he'll drive for the remainder of this season and 2011.