In recent years, Jimmie Johnson had a three-digit points lead and only needed to finish the race to win yet another Sprint Cup Series title.
Things have changed — drastically.
Three guys — Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Johnson — are in the running for the championship, which will undoubtedly come down to the final lap of the Ford 400 this weekend.
[media-credit name=”Getty Images” align=”alignright” width=”400″][/media-credit]Only 15 points separate the top-two drivers in the closest championship battle since the advent of the new points system in 1974. Hamlin, the points leader, can only clinch by winning the race or leading the most laps and finishing second. Otherwise, he will need to outrun Johnson and Harvick.
“I’m in a good spot knowing that I just have — I can control my own destiny and not have to worry about anything else,” Hamlin said during Thursday’s championship contenders press conference. “If we win the race, it’s a moot point.”
Johnson has more to overcome than Hamlin’s one victory and three top-five finishes in five starts at Homestead. Since 1975, only two drivers have ever come from behind in the final race to win the title In 1979, Richard Petty won the championship after entering the season finale trailing Darrell Waltrip by two points and most recently in 1992 when Alan Kulwicki overcame a 30-point deficit to beat Davey Allison. Still, Johnson says he is more relaxed coming into the finale than he ever has been.
“For us, I mean, we have nothing to lose,” Johnson said. “… When you’re defending, your mind starts to change, and you start to think about the ‘what ifs.’ When you’re chasing, it’s more about ‘What do I need to do?’ It’s been a more relaxed week for me, even though I’m down 15 points, than I’ve ever experienced before.”
Johnson is looking for his fifth straight championship title while Hamlin and Harvick are both looking for their first.
At the end of the year banquet held in Las Vegas, the top-ten drivers in the chase will be invited to come up on stage, the 11th and 12th place drivers will not. As Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick battle for the championship, the other end of the chase field is battling to stay in the top-ten. Kurt Busch currently holds the tenth spot, but Clint Bowyer is only five points behind.
The final race of the 2010 season also means it’s the final opportunity for cars to either gain or lose a spot in the top-35 owner points race. The No. 71 team currently holds a 74-point lead over the No. 38 team, who is in 36th. The first five races of next season will use the top-35 owner points from the end of this season to determine which cars will be guaranteed a starting spot.
The 2009 Ford 400 was won by Denny Hamlin after Jimmie Johnson, eventual champion, sat on the pole.
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway; Homestead, Fla. (1.5-mile oval)
Date: Sunday, Nov. 21 at 1:00 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN, 1 p.m. ET (pre-race starting at Noon ET on ESPN2)
Radio: MRN Radio/Sirius-XM NASCAR Radio 128