In the seventh season of the Chase for the Championship, NASCAR finally has what the season-ending format was intended to create: an incredibly tight three-way fight in the finale. Heading into Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a look at the tale of the tape for the three championship contenders:
. First, 6,462 points
. No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Ford
Last weekend at Phoenix, Hamlin might have been the unhappiest 12th-place finisher NASCAR has seen all season. It's hard to blame him after poor fuel consumption knocked him out of contention in a race he dominated. Now the question is, can he and crew chief Mike Ford, who has suddenly been the center of attention the past two weeks, shake it off and refocus on bringing home a first Sprint Cup title? It'd be a fine belated present for Hamlin, who turned 30 on Thursday.
The good: Hamlin took home the Homestead win last year after starting 38th. He's the only title contender who has won on the 1.5-mile oval, and as the leader, he's the only one who controls his destiny. A repeat win clinches the crown, as does a runnerup finish if he leads the most laps.
The bad: His poor finishes have tended to come in bunches this season. He started the year with five straight finishes out of the top 15, then had a midseason stretch of five straight outside the top five, and before the Chase he was outside the top 30 in three of four races before a win at Richmond.
Quotable: Hamlin on Jimmie Johnson, who has suggested all week that all the pressure is on the series leader: "If he keeps bringing up my name, he's pretty much worried about me. That's all I'll say."
. Second, 6,447 points (15 back)
. No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
The four-time defending series champion goes into this finale in an usual position: second place. Last year he led by 108 points coming into Homestead; in 2008 he led by 141; in 2007 his margin was 86, and in 2006 he was up 63. In other words, he usually comes to South Florida just needing to stay out of everybody else's wrecks. Now he'll likely need to take some chances if he wants to extend his own record for consecutive championships at NASCAR's top level.
The good: Perhaps having Jeff Gordon's pit crew will bring some Homestead magic — Gordon leads the series with five top-five and nine top-10 finishes at the track. After making that swap, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus got a top-five finish at Phoenix after a fuel gamble.
The bad: Though he qualified well Friday, this is not the place where Johnson would most prefer to need a big result. Yes, he has a second and a third in nine starts at Homestead, but he has led just 71 laps, and his average finish of 12.7 is his second-worst at a Chase for the Championship track.
Quotable: Johnson, perhaps trying to keep up the mind games he has tried to play with Hamlin this week, said he slept "great" Thursday night despite the pressure of the championship. Johnson then added: "I don't know if Denny did, but I know I did."
. Third, 6,416 points (46 back)
. No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Harvick has reached this position more with consistency than dominance. He has three wins this season; a fine output but far behind Hamlin (eight wins) and Johnson (six). And Harvick is 11th in laps led with 357, again far behind leader Johnson (1,314) and No. 3 Hamlin (1,184). So how did Harvick lead the points for much of the season and stay in the hunt during the Chase? With 15 top-five finishes (second only to Johnson's 16) and a series-high 25 top-10s.
The good: His nine races at Homestead have been consistently good, with seven top-10s leading to an average finish of 8.4, his best of any track and best among the title contenders. He was third in the Ford 400 last year and has been second twice at Homestead, including 2008.
The bad: About that whole consistency thing? It's nice in getting Harvick to this point. But now he needs to charge. Unless something happens to his rivals, Harvick likely needs to win and probably lead the most laps. Even then, Hamlin can take the title by finishing sixth, or even seventh if he leads a lap.
Quotable: "There's really nothing else that matters at this point. Just throw it all out there, and if it gets rough, it gets rough. If it doesn't, then we just go race and see where it all falls in the end. It's still a no-pressure, no-lose situation for us, and I like it."
Sprint Cup points
With one race to go. Only the top three drivers are still mathematically eligible in the Chase for the Championship.
Driver Pts. Back
Denny Hamlin 6,462—
Jimmie Johnson 6,447 15
Kevin Harvick 6,416 46
Carl Edwards 6,198 264
Matt Kenseth 6,151 311
Jeff Gordon 6,124 338
Kyle Busch 6,115 347
Greg Biffle 6,113 349
Tony Stewart 6,074 388
Kurt Busch 6,033 429
Clint Bowyer 6,028 434
Jeff Burton 5,958 504
Up next: Season finale
Ford 400, 1 p.m. Sunday, Homestead-Miami Speedway TV: ESPN