Hamlin, Harvick saving the Chase

Denny Hamlin has won a career-high seven races in 2010

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Can Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick save the Chase? In other words, can they turn the critics' opinions in its favor?

It's no secret that the Chase format isn't wildly popular. Fans constantly criticize it, television ratings slump during it and large chunks of seats remain empty at some tracks when it rolls into town.

There is any number of reasons for the antipathy, be it Jimmie Johnson's four-year dominance or the refusal of some race fans to accept a new way to crown a champion.

But there is potentially a third reason why, that the Chase format hasn't regularly delivered on its promise to produce a nail-biting race to the championship. In the six-year history of the Chase, there has been only one tight battle – Kurt Busch's eight-point win in the inaugural Chase of 2004.

Since then, however, the Chase has been devoid of any drama heading into the season finale. Tony Stewart had a comfortable 52-point lead going to Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2005, and in Johnson's four-year reign he's held leads of 63, 86, 141 and 108 points, respectively.

Had the points battles been tighter, the Chase may be looked at more favorably today.

Now, we're about to find out what role drama plays in how the Chase is perceived.

After claiming his third straight win at Martsinsville Speedway on Sunday, Hamlin moved to within just six points of Johnson. That's the closest margin ever between first and second with four races to go in the Chase. And thanks to an out-of-nowhere third-place run, Harvick is just 62 points back heading to Talladega, a track where he won at earlier this season.

There's never any need to hype a race at Talladega. The track, with its ridiculous 200-mph-plus speed, 33-degrees of banking, four-wide racing and potential for all-out carnage, does just fine by itself. But this time, this race will be the most anticipated in years.

For that, we have Hamlin and Harvick to thank, because they're making a game of it.

To this point, Johnson has been mostly brilliant in the Chase. His average finish in six races is 6.5. That's better than the average finish for the winner of four of the six Chase champions.

Yet Hamlin, with a 6.0 average, has actually been better. He only trails in the standings because Johnson has more bonus points for laps led. And while Harvick hasn't been quite as good (6.8 average finish), he's barely one step behind.

"I like being behind and chasing a guy," Hamlin said after picking up his career-best seventh win of the season. "I do not like playing defense at all. So, I mean, to come here and play offense all day, going through adversity to get this win, it's a huge boost going forward."

Hamlin started on the pole Sunday, but a bad set of tires sent him falling through the field in the early going. Having predicted nothing less than a win prior to the race, the pressure was squarely on Hamlin from that moment on.

He never had the dominant car. That distinction went to Jeff Burton, who led the most laps for the second straight race at Martinsville. But Hamlin hung near the front most of the day, stayed out of trouble in a race marred by 15 cautions, and eventually took the lead from Harvick with under 30 laps to go.

It was a grinding, satisfying win for Hamlin, because even though he did go into the race as the favorite, nothing was certain after the early issues. Not winning would not have taken him out of the championship hunt, but it would have been a moral defeat after having predicted a win.

"[He] did a good job of stepping up to all the talk," Johnson said.

Now the battle roles on to Talladega, the track everyone has pegged as the wild card in the Chase.

A year ago, Johnson and Mark Martin were locked in a tight points battle heading to the finish line there. But moments before the checkered flag flew, Martin, running right behind Johnson, got caught up in a wreck. Martin finished 28th, Johnson wound up sixth, and the Chase was essentially over.

This year, however, there appears to be a safety net from something like that happening. For starters, there are three drivers still in the hunt, and the one who's third in the standings will be a prohibitive favorite over the drivers he's chasing.

From there it's on to Texas, where Hamlin won earlier this year, then it's on to Phoenix, one of Hamlin's best racks, and finally to Homestead, where Hamlin won a year ago.

"I'm pretty confident once we get past Talladega that we can race those guys [Johnson and Harvick] heads up," Hamlin said.

Said Johnson, "It's going to be one helluva race. I can promise you that."

If it is, and if Hamlin, Harvick and Johnson are still locked in a tight battle heading to Homestead-Miami, and if the championship comes down to the final laps, what will critics of the Chase say then?