Well, race fans, Texas is now in the books, and with Denny Hamlin’s victory, he now takes the points lead with two races to go by a 33 point margin over Jimmie Johnson with Kevin Harvick in third 57 points back. NASCAR, the past few years, has been clamoring for an exciting points battle after Jimmie Johnson’s complete dominance the last four years and this year, it appears they have finally got their wish as three drivers now have a legitimate chance at the championship.
Now to run a few different scenarios by the fans here on how the points lead could change. If Jimmie wins at Phoenix, and Hamlin is 6th or worse, Johnson can retake the points lead. However, if Kevin Harvick wins at Phoenix, Jimmie finishes 5th or worse, and Hamlin finishes 13th or further back, then Harvick takes the points lead going into the final race of the season at Homestead. In other words, these teams can ill afford to make a mistake at this stage in the Chase because one mistake could be fatal to the championship hopes of any of the three.
Going into Phoenix, Hamlin leads all drivers this season in victories with 8, 14 top 5 finishes, and 18 top 10′s with just two DNF’s. Jimmie Johnson has 6 victories, 15 top 5′s, and 21 top 10′s, but his Achilles’ heel this season has been a very uncharacteristic 4 DNF’s. Harvick, who under the old pre-Chase, consistency-based points system would have clinched the championship at Texas with a 300 point lead going into Phoenix, but in the current format, he’s in third place and 57 points out of the lead and has 3 wins, 15 top 5 finishes, and 24 top 10 finishes with just one lone DNF this season.
To recap Texas for those who didn’t see the race for the three championship contenders, Denny Hamlin had a strong car all day and came to Texas with one singular goal in mind in the words of Raiders owner Al Davis, “Just Win, Baby!”. Jimmie Johnson’s team appeared to be wilting under the pressure with a couple of bad pit stops that led Chad Knaus to swap the #48 over-the-wall pit-crew with Jeff Gordon’s #24 pit-crew for the remainder of the Chase while Kevin Harvick tagged the wall late in the race and fell to 10th behind Johnson and Hamlin, but after a bold move to take tires on the final pit stop with less than 10 laps remaining, Harvick picked off a few spots in the final three laps to collect a respectable 6th place finish and keep himself in the hunt.
So, based on momentum, who would be the favorite under the desert skies of Phoenix? The answer is based on his past few performances, Denny Hamlin has to be considered the favorite as that team seems to be firing on all eight cylinders at the moment with Kevin Harvick a close second. The big question with Harvick is can he pick up a victory in the last two races to really narrow the gap between himself and the rest of his competition? As for Jimmie Johnson, his team seemed to be in a bit of a tail-spin at Texas, but you can never count out the #48 team as they’ve won the last four championships for a reason. The only thing that is for certain will be millions of eyes will be glued to Phoenix this Sunday as the Chase adds another chapter to what has been a great battle this season. Stay tuned, fans, because business is about to pick up.