For Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, it’s three to go.
For Johnson, it’s a shot at not only the historic but the inconceivable just a few years ago: five straight championships.
For Hamlin, it’s the accomplishment of a quest he vowed to fulfill last year when the season closed out at Homestead: dethrone Jimmie Johnson.
For Harvick, it’s the opportunity to bring a title back to Richard Childress racing and complete a remarkable resurgence from last year’s mediocre results.
All three have strong motivations and none are more seductive than the title they could carry to Speedweeks at Daytona in February: defending Sprint Cup Champion.
It’s never been this close before and it’s been four years since it’s been nearly this close with three to go. It could get even closer.
For Hamlin, just managing to get a top six finish with Johnson three spots back could get him the points lead. Harvick could tote the lead out of Texas with a win and just a few spots between himself and Hamlin and Johnson.
For Johnson, it’s time to sweat.
He’s hearing the footsteps. He knows both the 11 and 29 teams are figuring out how to squeeze him out of points.
Last week, the 29 team elected to maneuver their pit stops so that Johnson couldn’t lead a lap under caution. Ultimately the 48 did lead, but the RCR bunch did the things they could do to control it.
Just how far will each go?
This season, we’ve seen the “have at it boys” mentality in the Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck Series. We’ve seen it happen for spots, for spite, and for wins.
Could it happen for a championship? Here’s something to start thinking about now.
What happens if it gets to Homestead with just a few points separating all three? It could happen.
Only three races remain at Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead.
At those three racetracks combined (the average of the average finishes at each track), Jimmie Johnson has the best average finish at 9.2. Hamlin comes in behind him at 10.6 at Harvick rounds out the three with a 12.1 average finish at all three tracks combined.
That means that on average, less than three positions separate each contender with three races to go.
The first ingredient for the “have at it boys” mindset is proximity, and they might have it every single week.
Race results from week to week get forgotten. It’s an endless blur of tracks, cities, silly season news and sponsorship moves. A Champion gets remembered forever.
So far this season, we’ve seen races won and lost by having at it, we’ve seen cars get airborne by having at it, and we’ve seen penalties handed out for having at it.
What if a championship is won or lost by having at it?
What if we get to Homestead and we end up waiting until Tuesday to see if a penalty is enough to change the final standings? What will NASCAR do if an egregious incident knocks someone out, or singles out a championship contender for rough driving after the race?
How will you remember the 2010 season if it happens?
Will you watch the driver collect a championship, the trophy and the check and celebrate him for doing what he had to do to win a title, or will you forever look at the 2010 champion with a mental asterisk?
Did he avail himself of the current mentality in NASCAR, or did he win a championship under dubious circumstances?
Be prepared to answer those questions yourself; there’s never been a year like this before and it could create a perfect storm for the fans, the drivers and NASCAR.