Three contenders, one Dega goal
Four to go, two guys to beat, Talladega looming.
What if one word could be used to sum each man's state of mind entering the race this weekend? Here's the word I would choose for each driver:
And one thing all three will think about when the green flag waves Sunday on the giant Alabama oval: Just get through this weekend without a Talladega disaster.
"It is the only Chase race we have that you can't necessarily control your destiny," Hamlin said.
All three Chase contenders understand one clear fact when they mash the gas at Talladega: No matter how good they are, no matter how careful they are, they can't protect themselves.
Not entirely. Not with cars running inches apart, bouncing around in the draft like a rubber ball on a trampoline that's sliding on ice at 200 mph.
Some drivers will try to play it safe, coasting around at the back of the pack until it's go-time late in the race.
But even laying back is no guarantee of safety. It only takes one driver making one tiny mistake in front of or beside another driver to cause the inevitable "big one," the multi-car wreck that is part of Talladega's mystique.
This is no place for overly aggressive driving, especially not for the three guys in the title hunt. For each of them, this race is about championship survival. If they leave Talladega and haven't lost ground, it was a good day.
Out front is the place to be, but it's not that easy. The April Talladega race had a record 88 lead changes among 29 drivers. Everyone gets shuffled back. The key is being in the right place at the right time.
"You see a lot of the same guys running up front," Hamlin said about Talladega. "Jamie McMurray [winner of the Daytona 500 this year] seems to avoid the wrecks a lot.
"But it's hard to know what is the right place to put yourself in. Anybody can lead [at Talladega] at any time they want to. It's just who decides to put themselves in positions that don't always work out."
All three Chase contenders spent time up front in the April race, but Harvick is the one who finished up front. So there's an air of confidence around the No. 29 Chevy team this week.
Harvick knows this is his chance to outrun the other two contenders. He has the upper hand right now in the restrictor-plate races. He won at Talladega in April and Daytona in July.
Richard Childress Racing appears to be a step ahead of other teams now on the plate tracks. So Harvick feels he has a bit of an advantage and needs to make the most of it, hopefully cutting into that 62-point gap he has with Johnson.
Harvick also realizes there's more chance of wrecking at Talladega.
"I'll take the odds," he said. "We've been really good on [plate] race tracks this year. I feel like we've had good strategies, done the things that we have needed to do and had fast cars. So I like the plate races. I enjoy them. We'll go and race just like we have, and hopefully, come out with a similar outcome."
And what is Hamlin thinking? He's in Dale Earnhardt mode and looks to be the intimidator down the stretch. Hamlin won last weekend at Martinsville and cut Johnson's lead to six points.
Hamlin has said all along he wanted to stay close and turn it up at the end. And he likes being the chaser instead of the guy trying to protect a points lead. Hamlin said he plans to keep Johnson in his sights at Talladega.
"My thought process is, if I get caught in a wreck, then I make sure that he's around me," Hamlin said last weekend. "More than likely, he's going to be in it or put himself in a bad spot, too."
In other words, Hamlin's message to Johnson is simple: If I wreck, you're wrecking with me. Hamlin's in full intimidation mode, hoping to get in Johnson's head.
Is it working? Johnson didn't win four consecutive championships by being easily intimidated, but this is unusual ground for him. A little doubt has to creep in.
He's been in worse shape with four races to go before and still won the title. Johnson was third, 41 points behind Matt Kenseth with four races remaining in 2006.
He was 53 points behind Jeff Gordon at this point in 2007.
There's one big difference between those seasons and this one: Talladega was behind him. This is the latest Chase date ever for Talladega, so a big wreck Sunday leaves little time to recover.
Conservation mode could mean Johnson sandbags and runs in the back until the end.
"I think we all feel better if we go 480 miles and then get crashed,'' Johnson said. "It really sucks to crash at five miles into the race or something. There's no need to push the envelope. But at the end you've got to pull the belts tight and drive through there and try to get the best finish you can."
Confidence, intimidation, doubt. It's part of the thought process for the three contenders, but Talladega can change their minds in an instant.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.