Odds Favor Jimmie Johnson Among Top Three With Three Races Left
The more intriguing twist is that four-time defending series champ -- and current points leader -- Jimmie Johnson has two drivers trying to chase him down instead of one. And unlike previous years, they are on his bumper. Denny Hamlin trails the champ by 14 points and regular-season points leader Kevin Harvick is only 38 back.
A statistical analysis of the performance of Johnson and his challengers at the remaining three race tracks indicates he still holds most favorable status, but things should stay interesting.
Even when Johnson has had more comfortable points margins and the option to play it safe at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway, the 1-mile Phoenix oval and 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway, he has put up impressive numbers to close out the season. His combined average finish at the three tracks is 9.2, compared to 10.6 for Hamlin and 12.1 for Harvick.
However, each has proven himself capable of beating the other two at a given track and that's why this championship is still up for grabs.
At this week's stop in Fort Worth, Texas, Hamlin boasts the best average finishing position (9.6) compared to Johnson (10.1) and Harvick (12.9). He has seven top-10 finishes in 10 starts in the No. 11 FedEx Toyota, including a win in April and a runner-up finish in this race last season.
Johnson has seven top-fives in the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet at Texas Motor Speedway, including four runner-up finishes and a win in 2007. He was second here in April, but also has the worst recent finish among the top three -- a 38th place in the fall event in 2009. Harvick has never won at Texas and his best finish in the No. 29 Shell-Pennzoil Chevy is third place in 2006.
While statistically it looks like any of the three should be capable of a good day in the Lone Star State, keeping the championship as close coming out as going in, it's a different story in Phoenix, where Johnson has proven himself master of the desert mile.
Johnson is the defending champion and his 4.9 average finish is unmatched. He has 12 top-10 finishes in 14 starts, nine top fives and four wins -- including a streak of three consecutive victories from 2007-08.
Johnson hasn't finished worse than fourth in the last eight races in Phoenix -- a seventh-place finish in 2006 marked the last time he placed out of the top five -- and he was third there on April 10.
Harvick has a pair of wins at Phoenix -- sweeping both races in 2006 -- but his average finish (15.0) is worst among the championship trio. He's had only one top-10 finish in his last five starts and was 13th in April. Hamlin is still winless at the Phoenix mile, but has a respectable average finish of 11.6 thanks to six top 10s in his 10 starts. He was 30th in April.
Should the title remain up for grabs heading to South Florida for the Nov. 21 Ford Championship Weekend, things should be exciting.
Of the three leading drivers, it's Harvick with the best Homestead-Miami resume and Johnson with the worst.
Harvick's 8.4 average finish is markedly better than Hamlin's (10.6) and Johnson's (12.7), and he's coming off a runner-up finish there in 2008 and a third place last year. He's finished out of the top 10 only twice in nine starts. Hamlin is the defending race winner and also has a pair of third-place finishes in his five starts.
While Johnson's average finish is worst among the three at Homestead, it could be skewed depending on how hard he needed to race and how aggressive he needed to be to secure his championships. He has finished among the top 10 in three of the last four races there and was fifth in 2009.
"For me, we've always approached each race with the mentality that we needed to win,'' Johnson said. "You can go back to the Texas race a few years back where I worked hard to get by Matt (Kenseth). We've been able to win at Phoenix. Our Homestead performance has been getting better and better each year.
"It's really the same mentality. We need maximum points. Of course, it's a little bit more forgiving or easy on your team and yourself with a big points lead. But we don't have that this year. We're going to have to race and we're ready for it.''