Fort Worth (Sports Network) Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick made it through last weekend’s “wild card” race at Talladega. Now, the top three drivers in points face a pivotal race in the Chase on Sunday at Texas.
Just 38 points separate leader Johnson from third-place Harvick, making it the closest margin among the top-three drivers with three races to go since NASCAR began its playoff format for its top-tier series in 2004. Hamlin is 14 points in back of Johnson.
One year ago, Johnson held a comfortable 184-point lead over second-place and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin with three races left. However, Johnson finished 38th at Texas after wrecking in the opening laps of the race.
Martin finished fourth at Texas and trimmed Johnson’s lead to 73 points. But Johnson went on to win at Phoenix and then finished fifth at Homestead to clinch his unprecedented fourth straight Sprint Cup Series championship by a 141-point margin over Martin.
Right now, Johnson knows he can’t afford any mistakes if he intends to capture his record-extending fifth consecutive title.
“We need to be as competitive and as fast as we can possibly be at this point,” Johnson said. “We’re going to three tracks that are good for all three competitors. You’re going to have to run in the top five to stay in the game. Then obviously take advantage of things and win if you can.”
Johnson has finished second in each of the last three spring races at Texas. He won here for the first time in November 2007.
Texas has been one of Hamlin’s better tracks lately. Hamlin finished second to Kurt Busch here one year ago, and then followed up with a victory in this year’s spring race.
“I never would have thought Texas would’ve been one of our better racetracks, but it just seems like that mile and a half thing has been hot for us,” Hamlin said. “Until this spring when we won [at Texas], I would have never thought that was going to be a racetrack where we can show up and win. Going back there now with the performance we had, it’s one of the those tracks where I say that it is a top-three Chase track for us.”
Harvick has gained the most momentum among the top three drivers in the last two races. He finished third at Martinsville and then came in a close second to his Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer at Talladega. Harvick is hoping his momentum will carry over into Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
“One of the three guys is going to finish in the top five overall in the last three races,” Harvick said. “If you’re not able to do that and be in contention to lead laps, you’re probably not going to win the championship.
“You can’t be conservative. You can’t go there hoping for a top 10, because as you’ve seen over the past few years, top fives and leading the laps is what it’s going to take over the next three weeks. I just believe it’s one of three cars that is going to do that and hopefully we can keep pace.”
Harvick has finished fifth and seventh in the last two Texas races. His best finish here is third, which came in November 2006.
Several races at Texas have come down to fuel mileage strategy. In last year’s fall race here, Kurt Busch conserved enough fuel at the end to claim the win. Busch inherited the lead when his younger brother, Kyle, ran out of fuel with less than three laps remaining. Both drivers last pitted with under 65 laps remaining.
Busch finished 25.686 seconds ahead of Hamlin, making it the largest margin of victory since NASCAR began using electronic timing and scoring in 1993.
Carl Edwards has the most victories at Texas with three. Jeff Burton is the only other driver with multiple wins here (two). Edwards and Burton are in the 12-driver Chase field, but both drivers have yet to win a race this season.
Forty-nine teams are on the preliminary entry list for the AAA Texas 500.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, November 7. Race: AAA Texas 500. Site: Texas Motor Speedway. Track: 1.5-mile oval. Start time: 3:00 p.m. (et). Laps: 334. Miles: 501. 2009 winner: Kurt Busch. Radio: 1080 KRLD / Performance Racing Network (PRN)