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We didn’t get to shuffle the deck with the wild card of Talladega last week, but things did get tighter with three races to go on the season.

It was hoped by many NASCAR fans that Jimmie Johnson would finish much further back than he did Sunday to give his closest chasers, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, a running head start for these final races, but it didn’t happen.

Even though no one would draft with Johnson all day, he still found himself in seventh place when the race was over, only five positions behind Harvick and two better than Hamlin. However little the gains were, all three are bunched up for the stretch run. Who could ask for anything more?

We have the three best drivers in NASCAR all season long going head-to-head for all the marbles. The final three races, beginning this week at Texas, have been what Denny Hamlin has been eyeing. His goal in the Chase for the Championship coming in was to be leading, or close.

Hamlin felt confident that he could duplicate the last three races of 2009 in gaining 435 points by finishing runner-up at Texas, third at Phoenix and winning in Miami. He’s currently only 14 behind Johnson.

If we look at the same formula for Johnson in the last three races, he could be in trouble. Texas ate him up bad in the Chase last year with a 38th-place finish — his worst run during the 2009 Chase. Johnson gained only 49 points from that race and totaled 404 in the final three. Should Johnson and Hamlin each have similar runs to last year, Hamlin would be the Sprint Cup Champion this year.

As for Harvick, he wasn’t even in the Chase last season but the Chase is where the entire RCR team made some changes for the better that propelled him and two teammates into it this year. Harvick accumulated 416 points in the final three races last year which would have him come up a little short against both Hamlin and Johnson. He’s currently 38 behind and will be racing on tracks that haven’t been traditionally his best.

The Las Vegas Hilton Super Book updated its odds to win the Championship making Johnson a 5-12 favorite with Hamlin at 9-5 and Harvick 3-1. Johnson deserves to be a big favorite just because he’s so consistent and hasn’t dropped off any from his four Championship seasons. The only difference is that Johnson has had Hamlin nipping at him for the entire Chase, something Johnson hasn’t had to deal with during his past runs.

Taking Hamlin might not be a bad play right now getting almost 2-1 with three races to go and his history on those tracks.

As for handicapping this week’s race at Texas, we have a lot of data to use from the entire season of races on 1.5-mile high banked tracks with the most recent piece of information coming from the Charlotte race a few weeks ago where Jamie McMurray held off Kyle Busch for the win.

Tony Stewart won in Atlanta just before the Chase started and if we go way back to April when the series last stopped at Texas, we can see that Hamlin won.

By using the three sister tracks of Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas along with Las Vegas, we’ve got six races we can look at from the 2010 season. Chances are that drivers who did well between those tracks collectively will do well this week with a slighter lean on what happened most recently at Charlotte and Atlanta.

When looking at all, it’s to figure that Johnson won’t run well this week. He finished third at both Atlanta and Charlotte, runner-up to Hamlin at Texas and won at Las Vegas. For him to finish outside of the top-five this week, he’ll need an occurrence like what happened last year at Texas when he got in a wreck on the third lap.

Kurt Busch won this race last year, managed to capture wins earlier this season in Atlanta and then took both the All-Star race and Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May. However, in his most recent runs on these types of tracks, Busch wasn’t as dominant and managed a best of only sixth.

Kyle Busch might be the driver to key on this week. When his brother won this race last season, it was only because Kyle had run out fuel late while leading. Kyle also has had great recent success on these tracks having finished second at Charlotte and fifth in Atlanta.

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