Hamlin chips away at Johnson's commanding lead heading to 'Dega

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1. Jimmie Johnson: Six points. Not a whole lot. Worse than seven. A lot worse than the 41 point-lead he held over Denny Hamlin before finishing fifth at Martinsville on Sunday. Johnson lost a would-be first Sprint Cup title by eight points in 2004, so he gets the value of a lead, big or small. And for one more week, at least, the four-time defending series champion tops the list that matters most: driver points. Margin is insignificant, just positioning.

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 ...

2. Denny Hamlin: Despite finishing fourth there this spring, Hamlin has an average finish of 19.3 in nine starts at Talladega. He has two other top-5s and several other forgettable afternoons. The interesting part of Hamlin's remaining Chase is how he manages the momentum. That's a figurative and literal necessity this week. He knew entering Martinsville that race should or could be his, considering he'd won two consecutively. He did it. Now he has to maintain the pressure. Talladega offers perhaps the worst possible scenario for completely blunting his inertia.

3. Kevin Harvick: After making a 15-point advance on Johnson with a third-place finish at Martinsville, the Talladega spring winner is within 62 points and a few sparking shards of metal of the points lead. A winner of the last two Sprint Cup restrictor plate races and the co-leader in wins (3) and top-3 (4) finishes at Daytona and Talladega since 2007, he will endure the same scrutiny and expectation this week as Hamlin last week. His spat with Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton may be a distraction or it may provide the kindling for a driver who seems to ignite his performance with controversy.

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.

4. Everyone else: Well, now. Who has a grudge? Who wishes to be a good teammate? Who doesn't? Who has a point to make? The promiscuous dance party that is restrictor plate racing is naturally rife with intrigue. Drafting partners are developed with time and trust in practices and races, chosen and discarded out of convenience in the final laps at Daytona and Talladega. A decision whether to follow or push another driver can create wild swings in finishing positions and points payouts. Talladega, therefore is going to be especially interesting.

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."