Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, October 25, 2010

Well Well Well ...

What was it I said a few weeks ago about crowning Jimmie Johnson?

Sure, things looked great for Johnson after winning at Dover and finishing second to Greg Biffle at Kansas -- hell, with Fontana, Charlotte and Martinsville on the horizon, I would've felt pretty damn good if I were in the No. 48 camp. And with finishes of third, third and fifth in those three races, Johnson still has the points lead.

But Denny Hamlin is coming. Consider:

-As strong as Johnson is at Martinsville, Hamlin is just as good. His win on Sunday is Hamlin's third straight at the Virginia short track. Hamlin and Johnson have combined to win the last eight races at Martinsville.

-Hamlin led laps at both Charlotte and Martinsville. Johnson didn't. That's 10 bonus points to Hamlin.

-Late at Fontana, Clint Bowyer got by Johnson -- five points swinging Hamlin's way. Kyle Busch got by Johnson late at Charlotte, another five-point swing for Hamlin. Johnson's short-run car faltered in the long run to end Sunday's race, and when Busch got by Johnson for fourth, that was another five-point swing Hamlin's way.

-When Johnson finished 25th at Loudon to open the Chase, Hamlin finished second. Johnson has finished 25th, first, second, third, third and fifth so far in the Chase; Hamlin has finished second, ninth, 12th, eighth, fourth and first.

-Johnson's six-point lead is the closest margin between first and second in the points this late into the Chase in the format's history.

So the momentum is clearly swinging Hamlin's way, as he sits just six points out of the lead as the series heads to Talladega this weekend. As we all know, anything can happen at Talladega; Johnson's escaped the track unscathed each of the last four years -- even missing the Big One in 2008 that took out virtually all of the other Chase drivers -- but his luck has to run out at some point, right?

But don't forget Kevin Harvick, only 62 points out after a strong run Sunday. He's great at Talladega, and he won there back in the spring. Talladega could be the track where the "regular season" points leader finally makes his move.

Or maybe the top three in points all get caught up in the big wreck, and someone we thought was out of it -- say, Busch or Jeff Gordon -- wins the race to reassert themselves in the Chase heading into the last three races.

You just never know.

But we do know this: Hamlin had to be strong at Martinsville. He had to finish in front of Johnson. He did just that, even backing up his pre-race prediction that he would win. Hamlin and Johnson now each have seven wins this season, and just six points separate them with four races left.

Buckle up, boys and girls. Things are about to get interesting ...

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