This year’s championship race has the potential to be one of the best
With so many unknowns coming into Talladega, it was difficult to predict what the Chase was going to look like over the final three races. Well, with Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick all surprisingly finishing in the top 10, the Sprint Cup Series is now set up for one of the tightest points battles ever, regardless of system. Fourth-place Jeff Gordon now sits over 200 markers behind, leaving the rightful three drivers left to compete for the title ahead of him: the four-time defending champion, the series wins leader, and the best driver during the sport’s 26-race regular season.
It had been a relatively lackluster playoff through the first six races, but for the first time in awhile, the Chase has a new life thanks to one of the more exciting races on the schedule and now a clear cut trio separated by a mere 38 points with three races remaining. Johnson sits at the top of the pedestal once again, but this year seems to have a different feel with Hamlin and Harvick both engineering impressive comebacks Sunday to stay in contention. Both have more than a puncher’s chance at dethroning the sport’s most recent king.
Just look at the best average finish at the final three tracks among the top-three drivers:
Texas – Denny Hamlin (9.6)
Phoenix – Jimmie Johnson (4.9)
Homestead – Kevin Harvick (8.4)
Assuming each team stays out of trouble over the final three races, fans will get to witness a true three-race playoff staged up front, where the point battle always belongs. You’ll see more strategy than ever, and you might even see (dare I say it) team orders come into play. What’s more is every position will count, and at least three drivers will legitimately race hard from the drop of the green flag. Stay tuned… this one’s going to be a classic.
Jimmie Johnson gained the most from Talladega of the top three
Many believed if Johnson survived Talladega, he’d be the one to beat for the title. Well, the current points leader not only survived the Chase’s wildcard, he left with a top-10 finish and a larger lead than he entered the weekend with. It was a wild swing of emotions in the last few laps, with Gordon’s nearly-blown engine leaving the No. 48 on an island during the final restart. After dropping like a rock from the front row, plagued with no one to draft with, the ending looked bleak until a frantic push back through the pack in the last three laps meant Johnson wound up this day with plenty of confidence. But as for gaining the most from the weekend? That honor goes to Harvick, who many assumed needed to win to get back into the title hunt. Well, he didn’t do it, but after an accident with Marcos Ambrose on lap 141 showed remarkable resilience as the No. 29 crew patched up the car and put him back in contention to draft his way to the front. Despite losing out on the victory to teammate Clint Bowyer, he was about as close of a second as you could be and ate into the points lead despite a solid run from Johnson. Just like that, Harvick is right there competing for the championship many think he deserves based on the old format: he’d be 288 points ahead of J.J. with three to go without the Chase reset.
Talladega shouldn’t be in the Chase
It’s been a debate since the Chase started: should a race that’s essentially a lottery be used to determine a series champion? We’ve all heard both sides of it, and while I’ll admit I’m on the side that believes every type of track should be included in the 10-race playoff, my reasoning for Talladega belonging in the Chase is a different one… it’s the lone race that can compete against the other sports during the fall. The most exciting race on the schedule, just an anticipation of the Big One itself draws the attention of the average sports fan as much as the competition appeals to the purists. Its position in the Chase also helps build excitement for the stretch run, setting the stage for how the title and other major NASCAR storylines will play out in November. Few races of this Chase have been memorable… but this one was, filled with 87 lead changes to draw in even the casual race fan. If that helps them tune into the final three races, well, then this restrictor-plate race will find itself an unrestricted success every year.