Three races into the “Chase for the Cup” and the door is open for several contenders to possibly end Jimmie Johnson’s championship streak.
The top eight drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings are separated by just 15 points, and the top nine by just 19 points. It roughly equates to an 80-point separation under the old points system.
Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards are tied atop the standings, although Harvick has the tiebreaker by virtue of four wins to one for Edwards.
The good news for most of the other Chase contenders is Johnson ranks fifth, 13 points behind the leaders. While it’s not that much of a deficit, he’s not off to a strong start like each of the past four years.
Three times over the last four seasons, Johnson has led the points following the third race in the Chase, while he was second to Mark Martin after the third Chase race in 2009. However, it’s far too early to count Johnson out.
In 2006, he was eighth in the standings after three races in the Chase, but went on an incredible run of one win and four runner-up finishes to win his first Sprint Cup title.
Heading into this weekend’s race at Kansas, Harvick said the new points system has added a few wrinkles to how he, Johnson and the rest of the Chase drivers race for a championship.
“I think the points system definitely has changed the complexion of having a bad day,” he said. “When you have a bad day, it hurts you worse than it had in the past. It also seems like if you can win some races, you can make up ground fairly quick and get up front and get the bonus points and the things you need.
“You just have to take it one week at a time, and I would much rather be sitting on top of the points three weeks in than sitting 12th.”
It does appear the three drivers at the bottom of the Chase standings — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin — are on the verge of being eliminated from contention.
In theory, Earnhardt and Newman could vault to the top of the standings with a win followed by a bad day by the rest of the Chase contenders. But it’s a very unlikely scenario, considering Earnhardt is riding a 120-race winless streak.
“Just try and win a race. To win a race and see what happens,” Earnhardt said when asked what was next for his team. “You can’t quit. We have an opportunity to race in the Chase and we are still alive and we will keep racing as hard as we can until the last lap at Homestead.”
Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart, the winners of the first three Chase races, are tied for third in the points, nine points behind Harvick and Edwards.
Others still in the 20-point range include Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth at 14 points back, Kyle Busch 15 points out of the lead and Jeff Gordon who is 19 points behind.
The tight race isn’t a surprise to Harvick, who posted a solid 10th-place run in Sunday’s race at Dover.
“The competition level is so even,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see anybody come in here and dominate like you have before, as far as just taking off and running away. You’re going to be consistent and solid and it’s just a matter of keeping yourself in it until you get to the last couple of races, and if you can keep yourself in contention, hopefully you’ve eliminated most of the other guys in the Chase.”
Johnson kept himself in the hunt with a runner-up finish at Dover, where he led five times for a race-high 157 laps. Still, he was frustrated to see Kurt Busch get the better of him on a pair of late-race restarts and steal the win.
For Johnson, his first three Chase races have included running out of gas on the final lap at Chicago and falling outside the top 10 after contact with Kyle Busch at New Hampshire.
“I look at it and say we left points on the table,” Johnson said. “This Chase is so tough, and I just look at the 14 car (Stewart) and what he did in the first two races and then the struggles they had. I think it speaks to how tough these 10 races are going to be and how you think somebody is on fire and the fire can go out.
“So we’ll just keep fighting hard. I hate leaving points on the table, and we have these first three races.”
• Volunteer Speedway has announced an open test session for the Open Wheel Modified and Pure 4 divisions on Saturday, Oct. 15. Speedway officials look at the test as a way to gauge interest for the classes possible return to the 2012 racing program. The practice is scheduled from 2-5 p.m. with no admission fees and refreshments served to drivers and crew members. Racing returns to the highbanked dirt track a week later on Oct. 20-22 with the Fastrack Racing Series Pro Late Model Nationals.