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Last week’s race at Martinsville wasn’t supposed to be one where drivers behind points leader Jimmie Johnson could make up some ground in the Chase for the Championship because of how good Johnson has been there over the years.

But, it was.

Denny Hamlin won for the third straight time at Martinsville and with Johnson finishing fifth, Hamlin was able to chop Johnson’s lead over him from 41 down to a mere six points.

Also gaining ground was Kevin Harvick, who had his best career finish at Martinsville with third place. By leading a lap, while Johnson never did, and finishing two positions higher than Johnson, Harvick cut his deficit from 77 points to 62 with four races remaining as they head to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend.

Talladega was to be the track that some of the Johnson chasers could really make their move, not Martinsville. Now we have the stage set for a race that could ultimately determine who wins the championship. The volatile nature of Talladega can wipe out any driver at any time like no other track on the circuit. Drivers can’t simply sit back and play it safe because danger lurks everywhere on the monstrous 2.66-mile beast.

Johnson has had success at Talladega in the past, but the Hendrick restrictor-plate program isn’t what it used to be and he should have cause for concern this week. In the first go around at Talladega in April, Johnson finished 31st while Harvick won. Harvick also went on to win the next plate race at Daytona in July showing that he is the driver to beat this week.

Should the same results occur this week that happened in April, both Hamlin and Harvick would leap frog Johnson in points and have a substantial lead. Johnson gained only 75 points with his finish while Hamlin gained 165 points for finishing fourth and Harvick 190 for winning. Kyle Busch could realistically get back into the Chase with a good run; he’s currently 172 points behind and always runs well in plate races.

The strategies for the contenders this week will be completely different. Hamlin has said jokingly that he is just going to follow Johnson for the entire race just to ensure that he has the same fate of Johnson to stay close in points.

Johnson will likely lag behind all the cars to try and stay out of trouble and then make a move with five laps remaining. Harvick will be looking to lead the most laps and get the bonus 10 points for doing so, along with going after the win which his car and skills are very capable of doing. Hamlin has a good enough program to compete for the most laps bonus and also go for the win.

The bonus of leading laps will have some takers outside the Chase, most notably Jamie McMurray who has been just a small notch below Harvick in plate races this year. McMurray won the Daytona 500 and finished runner-up to Harvick at Talladega.

Jeff Burton, Harvick’s teammate, has equally good parts and should run well as he did at Talladega in April when he led the most laps. Look for both of these drivers to contend for the win late. Burton finished fifth in the last plate race run at Daytona.

Juan Pablo Montoya has the same plate program as his teammate McMurray and should run a good race this week as well. He finished third at Talladega in April and has a career best finish of second-place in 2008.

For NASCAR’s sake with its declining ratings, having a real chase down the stretch with Johnson chasing others would be a real boost. In order for that to happen, Johnson will have to falter this week. The three remaining tracks after Talladega are all tracks Johnson fares well at. I’ll be looking for Harvick and Hamlin to do very well this week with Johnson finishing in the high teens which should give us a new points leader after the race and set up for a great final three races.

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