Three races left, three drivers who matter. This continues to be the most interesting Chase for the Championship in NASCAR history. But ultimately, the man blamed for numbing down the seven-year-old playoff system to determine the Sprint Cup champion remains in the lead.
1. Jimmie Johnson: He left Denny Hamlin's dog-eared race as the points leader by six. He left Kevin Harvick's dog-eared race in the same position, but eight points better. While Hamlin won at Martinsville and Harvick was second by virtue of a scoring loop at Talladega, Johnson remained 14 points in the lead.
He endured a waning car to finish fifth at Martinsville and restarted second in the final four laps at Talladega, but was relegated to seventh by unwilling draft partners. Now Johnson, although embroiled in the most competitive Chase -- statistically and emotionally -- in the format's seven-year existence, is faced with two 1.5-mile tracks -- Texas and Homestead-Miami -- out of three remaining this season. That makes for a good prognosis.
Though his team, admittedly, struggled at times this season on these tracks, the four-time defending series champion is one win shy of doubling his next-best peer with 53 victories at 1.5-mile venues since his rookie season in 2002. And as for those struggles, Johnson was third at Atlanta, second at Kansas and third at Charlotte in his last three starts on 1.5-mile tracks. One-mile-long Phoenix is wedged between Texas and Homestead. Johnson has won four of the last six there.
Johnson said on Sunday that it was time to race full-out, and with good reason. Martinsville and Talladega were rife with uncontrollable variables, such as spinning race cars in close quarters or the vagaries of the draft. In a much more manageable, albeit sedate, form of racing that has made him a champion, Johnson is in control of his fate. A fifth-straight title is his to lose.
2. Kevin Harvick: A flag reading "The beatings will continue until morale improves" once flew over the transporter of two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart when he was partnered with crew chief Greg Zipadelli at Joe Gibbs Racing. He'd complain, he'd scold, they'd win. At some point Harvick must have folded this approach into his philosophy.
Seemingly each week -- including on Sunday at Talladega -- he carps at or lambastes his team over the radio for some inadequacy, then, either by flogging them to action or by overcoming their mistakes, Harvick regroups for a quality finish. Harvick had even more to overcome on Sunday after the nose of his No. 29 Chevrolet slammed into Marcos Ambrose's car, but an extensive tape job and some sheet metal manipulation repaired the car well enough for a drive promptly to the front and within a millisecond of a momentous victory over teammate Clint Bowyer.
Clearly, Harvick has a one-sided approach to interpersonal communication, but he doesn't sulk. He seemingly becomes inspired by his own bile. And he just doesn't shut off. He is the bad Terminator that has to be melted into the cauldron of liquid steel. He is the most likely to chase down Johnson, but he's never won at Texas or Homestead. He swept both races at Phoenix in 2006, but that was a generation of race car ago.
3. Denny Hamlin: The fashionable challenger pick in the preseason displayed inspiring resilience on Sunday after a common strategy of milling deep in the field to avoid wrecks badly backfired. Dangling pathetically out of the draft and falling a lap down, then having to battle to retain the automatic pass back, he could have allowed his season to vaporize. He could have been caught in a wreck not of his doing.
Instead he recovered with the free pass and eventually some collegial drafting help from JGR teammate Kyle Busch and actually led four laps. He finished ninth in a seemingly buoyant performance, but Hamlin was subdued afterward, partly because he lost five positions, he said, on Johnson on the final turn when Johnson's teammate, Mark Martin, expectedly stopped pushing him forward.
And it's not like he's facing a wasteland of past performance. Hamlin, who remains second in points, won the Texas spring race, was second there last fall and is the defending Homestead-winner. And was third at Phoenix last fall. "We've got a tight one and I'm looking forward to the last three [races]," he said.
4. Everyone else: Clint Bowyer won for the second time in the Chase -- more than any other driver -- and actually kept all the points this time. A second win was gratifying after he lost 150 points because of a post-New Hampshire win, but there must be some tinge of frustration also.