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Three-man title battle heads to Texas

Counting Sunday's AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, only three races remain until the crowning of the 2010 Sprint Cup Series champion. The way things are going, the championship won't be determined until the final lap of the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in a few weeks.

Points leader Jimmie Johnson, second-place Denny Hamlin and third-place driver Kevin Harvick have made this year's Chase the closest three-way battle with three races to go in Chase for the Sprint Cup history. Johnson holds just a 14-point lead over Hamlin, and Harvick's only 38 points out of first, despite being the third-place driver heading into this weekend's event in Texas.

According to Harvick, the tight three-man battle has eliminated the luxury of just being conservative and riding around, staying out of trouble for the next three races.

"You can't be conservative," Harvick said. "You can't go hoping for a top-10, because, as you've seen over the past few years, top-fives, leading the laps is just what it's going to take over the next three weeks."

Case in point: Johnson could possibly lose the points lead, even if he finishes second. Of course, Hamlin would have to lead the most laps and win for that to happen, but it's possible. Meanwhile, Harvick could possibly jump from third to the points lead, even with Johnson and Hamlin finishing in the top-10 -- if they finish near the bottom of the top-10.

"We need maximum points," Johnson said.

While Johnson's used to being in championship contention -- after all, he's won the title the last four years -- he's used to having a much larger cushion this close to the end of the year.

"Of course, it's a little bit more forgiving or easy on your team and yourself with a big points lead, but we don't have that this year," Johnson said. We're going to have to race, and we're ready for it."

All three drivers have performed at least relatively well at Texas Motor Speedway in recent years, Johnson and Hamlin more so than Harvick. Johnson and Hamlin have each visited victory lane at the track, Hamlin most recently. He won there earlier this year, with Johnson finishing second. In this race a year ago, Hamlin finished second to Kurt Busch. His average Texas finish is 9.6, just slightly better than Johnson's average of 10.1.

Johnson visited the TMS victory lane after this race in 2007. He also has five TMS runner-up showings and 10 top-10s in 14 starts at the track.

Harvick doesn't have a win at Texas, but he's finished in the top-10 in the Sprint Cup Series' last couple of visits to the track. He finished 10th earlier this year and fifth in this race a year ago. His average Texas finish is 12.9.

Television coverage for Sunday's AAA Texas 500 is slated for a 2 p.m. ET start on ESPN.

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