And then there was just one race left, one chance for each of the Big 3 to take home the Cup. How close is this Chase? Close enough that it very well could come down to a late restart, a green-white-checker, a dropped lug nut or a pit road penalty -- in short, the eventual losers could be close enough to the eventual winner to shake hands (or smack bumpers) as they come into turn 4.
Now, because of all the bonus points available for leading laps, there are myriad ways in which each driver can stack up points against his competitors, making prediction of scenarios, particularly those in which the players finish deep in the field, a tricky business.
So this is predicated on worst-case-scenarios for each driver in terms of opponent performance; in other words, this is the minimum necessary for a Sprint Cup victory if your opponents dominate the race. If the drivers finish, oh, 23rd, 28th and 30th, things get wacky and we won't factor through all the probabilities right here. But assuming everybody runs to the best of their ability, here are some of the major scenarios at play for Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick:
Hamlin (15 up on Johnson, 46 up on Harvick) wins if:
• He wins the race.
• Johnson wins the race, but Hamlin finishes second AND leads a lap, or finishes third AND leads the most laps.
• He finishes no more than three places behind Johnson at any point in the race, not factoring in bonus points.
• He finishes no more than eight places behind Harvick at any point in the race, not factoring in bonus points.
• Harvick wins, but Hamlin finishes 8th or better AND Johnson doesn't finish in the top 4 (top 5 if Johnson gets lap bonuses).
• Harvick wins AND leads the most laps, but Hamlin finishes 6th or better AND Johnson doesn't finish 2nd, or 3rd with at least one lap led.
Johnson wins if:
• He wins the race AND Hamlin finishes second or third and doesn't get all 10 lap-leader bonus points OR Hamlin finishes fourth or below.
• He places top 5 AND Hamlin finishes at least three places below him, AND Harvick wins but doesn't lead the most laps.
• He leads the most laps, and finishes at least three spots ahead of Hamlin while staying within five spots of Harvick.
Harvick wins if:
• He wins the race AND Johnson doesn't finish any better than 4th AND Hamlin doesn't finish better than 8th.
• He finishes top-five AND Hamlin finishes 14 spots behind or worse AND Johnson finishes 8 spots behind or worse.
(Note that all tiebreakers involving Hamlin favor him, as he had the most victories during the season. Johnson gets the nod should he and Harvick tie. Also, feel free to correct my math here if I'm astray.)
What we can take from this is that nobody's out of the hunt, but that nobody can afford even a minor mistake, either. A miscue that drops you five positions could be devastating. Going to be a hell of a Sunday afternoon at Homestead, isn't it?