By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
Going into Sunday’s Tums Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville, the most ‘Wide Open’ Chase of all-time now looks to be more of a three man battle, which we really should have seen all along.
The three vying for the title include the season-long point leader, and the two guys who won more races during the regular season than anyone else. However if the past holds true this weekend, we may be down to just two guys with a shot at the championship.
Jimmie Johnson, who has won each of the last four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships finds himself in a familiar spot… the point lead.
Johnson has endured an incredibly inconsistent 2010 campaign, numerous people hexing him, and fighting the inevitability that he will have to eventually not win a championship. Yet here he is. Leading the points and stretching the lead little by little with each passing week.
Johnson now heads into a track where he has an average finish of 5.4 (best among active-drivers) over his career. He has also won five times in the past eight races at the half-mile paperclip in Martinsville, Virginia.
The person who has won the other three of the last eight races at Martinsville is Denny Hamlin. With five races remaining in the Chase, he sits 41 markers back from being in the prime spot for hoisting the Cup.
Hamlin was the preseason favorite to dethrone Johnson, and he has lived up to the hype. Early on in the season Hamlin struggled, but then he had a come-from-behind victory, and boom he caught fire. That win could possibly be considered his signature victory and was his first win of the season.
That win came at, spoiler alert, Martinsville Speedway.
Aside from Martinsville being special for Hamlin because he is a Virginia-Native, this track could quite possibly considered his best track of any on the circuit. Hamlin has an average finish of 6.6 here in his career, and in the last five races here his worst finish is a fifth-place outing in the fall of 2008.
Kevin Harvick comes into this weekend third in the standings, 77 points back from Jimmie Johnson. Harvick is the only driver other than Denny Hamlin within 100 points of the Chase lead, but that could become a thing of the past when the checkered flag flies Sunday.
Harvick in 18 career starts at Martinsville Speedway, has never finished higher than seventh. Not only that, but this was the race early in the season, where his brakes failed and for the first time his team looked to show a sign of weakness. Over the course of his career Harvick has an average finish of 18.1 here.
If Harvick can get his first career top-five at this track, I would say he is very much alive in the Chase For The Sprint Cup. However if he has his characteristically poor showing at this track it will be very tough for him to close the margin on Johnson and Hamlin.