- Terry Blount, ESPN Staff Writer
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What the heck. No reason to back off now. I've never shied away from making a bold prediction, so I'm going to drop this one on you:
Sunday will be the best Chase race ever at Texas Motor Speedway.
And that's saying something. I've been there for all five of them, and the place has produced some good ones.
Johnson and Matt Kenseth traded paint at 190 mph in the final laps of the 2007 fall race at TMS, racing side by side for several laps before Johnson prevailed.
But this race has more to offer than any TMS Chase event in the past. This is the closest three-way fight for the Sprint Cup title ever at the superfast Fort Worth oval.
Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are separated by only 38 points. Johnson is 14 points up on Hamlin and Harvick is third. All three drivers need a win Sunday, and all three believe they can win.
No coasting in the back this week. No sandbagging. No playing possum.
Go-time isn't with 20 laps to go, not at TMS. Go-time comes when the green flag falls to start the AAA Texas 500.
Get to the front and stay in the front if you hope to stay in contention to win the Chase.
"It's all out now," Johnson said moments after the Talladega race.
Yes it is, which is why fans may see something they've never seen before at TMS -- two of the top three Chase contenders battling for the victory in the final laps on the 1.5-mile oval.
"You can't go there hoping for a top-10," Harvick said. "Leading laps is what it's going to take now. When you look at the stats over the last four years, top-10s don't cut it."
A top-10 won't be good enough if all three drivers are racing near the front at the end.
"You've got to finish in the top-5 if you're going to keep touch with the other two guys," Harvick said. "If we don't do that, one of those other two guys will.
"Somebody is going to finish in the top-5 every week. If you're not that guy, you're going to lose ground. You can't be conservative."
It's music to the ears of TMS president Eddie Gossage, who wants to see the three contenders race aggressively for the win Sunday.
"I thought Talladega teed the ball up for us perfectly," Gossage said. "I don't know what a race fan can ask for that's better than this. These three guys have to stand on it here. It makes for great drama. And if one of them gets behind early, we may see them go into desperation mode."
But where do they draw the line between aggressively trying to win and not carelessly throwing away a chance at the championship?
"I think there's a level of taking chances at the right time that I've always done a good job of in the Chase," Johnson said. "Now I see the 29 [Harvick] and the 11 [Hamlin] doing that, as well. I'm not surprised to be racing these two guys."
I thought Talladega teed the ball up for us perfectly. I don't know what a race fan can ask for that's better than this.
”-- Eddie Gossage
In other words, Harvick and Hamlin have learned to race like Johnson, the man who is trying to win his fifth consecutive championship.
"He's got to feel pressure," Harvick said about Johnson at Talladega. "It's not just 'Put it in cruise control and get decent finishes' this time."
Johnson had a 184-point lead over Mark Martin heading to TMS last fall, a padding he needed after wrecking at Texas. He was 183 points ahead of Carl Edwards entering the TMS Chase race in 2008, which Edwards won.
But Johnson also has been the Chaser with three to go. He was nine points behind Jeff Gordon heading to TMS in 2007 and 26 behind Kenseth in 2006.
"It will be interesting to see how each of us handles this in the final three races," Johnson said. "The extra points from first to second are going to be important."
It sounds like Johnson intends to win -- this race and the title.
"No offense to him, but somebody else needs to win," Harvick said, with Johnson sitting next to him after the Talladega race.
"Says who?" Johnson asked with a chuckle.
"Everybody but them wants somebody else to win," Harvick added. "I like Jimmie as much as anybody, but for the sake of the sport, one of the two of us [Harvick or Hamlin] needs to make something happen. I can promise you that."
Believe it or not, Hamlin is glad all three of them got through Talladega with top-10 finishes instead of a car on the wrecker hook.
"We can see these last three weeks who's got the best stuff," Hamlin said. "I think it's been pretty much dead even between us."
That may prove true Sunday when the three of them make it the best Chase race ever in Texas.
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.
11dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information