For 10 months, Denny Hamlin has had a plan. He closely studied the 2010 Sprint Cup schedule last winter, analyzing when the circuit stopped at his best tracks, as well as when it visited the weakest tracks of his rival, Jimmie Johnson. From that, Hamlin devised a strategy for taking down the four-time defending champion. "I need to be close to Jimmie coming out of Talladega," Hamlin said last January as he drove an SUV through the hills of Concord, N.C. "I'll be somewhat conservative up to that point in the Chase, because I feel like I can outrun Jimmie in those last three races of the season. I just have to survive Talladega."
On Sunday, Hamlin did survive, but just barely. After leading a lap early to earn five bonus points, he lifted off the gas and fell to the back of the field. His intent was to avoid the Big One—the multicar wrecks so common at Talladega—but he dropped too far. Unable to hook up with a drafting partner, he eventually was lapped. (Johnson had dropped back too, but rather than go it alone, he moved in tandem with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.) Up on Hamlin's pit box, J.D. Gibbs, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing, couldn't stop shaking his head. "The championship was slipping away," Gibbs said. "We needed a break."
Hamlin got it with 48 laps left in the 500-mile race, when Marcos Ambrose went into a slow spin and Kevin Harvick slammed into him, which brought out the caution flag. As the first car one lap down, Hamlin, by rule, got the free pass back to the lead lap. He picked his way toward the front, and finished ninth—two spots behind Johnson, who had also made a late charge. Johnson now holds a 14-point lead over Hamlin and a 38-point edge over Harvick, who overcame his fender bender to finish second. The point differential separating the top three drivers is now as close as it's ever been with three races left since the Chase era began in 2004.
"I'm going to have to win races to win it all," says Johnson. "I've come out of Talladega in the past with a cushion, but now it's going to take everything we have because Denny and Kevin excel on these last three tracks."
Based on past performance, Hamlin must now be considered a slight title favorite. He won at Texas Motor Speedway (the next stop on the schedule) last April; he's finished sixth or better in five of his last seven starts at Phoenix International Raceway (Nov. 14); and he's the defending champ at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 21). Johnson also has run strong recently at the next two tracks, but the last time he failed to win the Cup, in 2005, he crashed at Homestead and lost the title to Tony Stewart. Did the pressure get to him back then? Johnson swears it didn't.
Hamlin will tell you otherwise. Gentlemen, start your mind games.
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SHORT TRACK Foul Fall
It must be hard for Clint Bowyer to avoid playing endless games of What If? After he won the Chase opener at New Hampshire International Speedway on Sept. 19, NASCAR penalized him 150 points when his Chevy failed the postrace inspection because the chassis had been slightly altered. This knocked Bowyer from second to 12th in the standings and effectively extinguished his title hopes. But he remains a factor in the Chase. On Sunday he held a narrow lead over Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick when the caution flag flew on the last lap, ending the race and handing Bowyer the victory. Without the chassis penalty, Bowyer would be in fifth place, trailing Johnson by 217 points. He'd be a major long shot to win it all, but at least he'd have a chance.
JERRY MARKLAND/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (PIT CREW)
GRAND FINALE Hamlin (below, left) and his crew are headed for three tracks where he has enjoyed great success.