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Forget about JJ: The real Chase battle is for second place

HAMPTON, Ga. -- The Chase really tightened up Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Three drivers moved within 35 points of each other with three races remaining. Three more moved within 131 points, so anything can happen between now and the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

It doesn't get much more exciting than this.

Six drivers battling it out …

For second, that is.

Oh, you thought this was about the championship. No, Jimmie Johnson has a stranglehold on that, taking a 183-point lead into the race at Texas Motor Speedway after rallying from a lap down because of a speeding penalty on pit road to finish second.

The real race for the Chase is for the runner-up spot.

It could be the most exciting race for second in the Chase's five-year history. It certainly is more exciting than the race for second last year. Jeff Gordon finished 77 points behind Johnson, who also won the title in 2006. The next closest competitor, Clint Bowyer, was 346 points back.

So stop asking how teams are going to catch Johnson. Please.

Focus on second.

"I'm tired of people asking if we're gonna catch him," Greg Biffle said after his 10th-place finish. "We're just gonna race as hard as we can every week. We've got three more chances, and then we're gonna start over next year."

Most of the Chase drivers feel the same way. Get the most out of the last three events and begin preparing for 2009.

"They're going to win the championship," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of Johnson's team after the 88 team's 11th-place finish. "They're the best team in this sport. They've been the best team for three years."

Gordon agreed.

"We're looking at what is realistic for us, third or fourth, maybe something like that," the four-time Sprint Cup champion said after finishing ninth to move up a spot to sixth in points. "As long as the 48 keeps doing what they're doing …''

Johnson's team is doing everything right. It has since finishing 33rd at Bristol in late August, collecting nine straight top-10s, a streak which includes four wins and a pair of seconds.

He actually extended his lead from 149 points over second-place Biffle and 152 over third-place Jeff Burton to 183 over Sunday's race winner, Carl Edwards. Biffle (185 points back) and Burton (218) are now third and fourth, respectively, behind Johnson and Edwards.

"It would be hard for me to believe there's one guy that would have that big of a lead, but if I had to pick a guy it would have been Jimmie Johnson," Edwards said.

Biffle and Burton had a chance to put some distance between themselves and the others chasing for second. They appeared in position to gain on Johnson, who was a lap down in 30th less than 100 laps in.

But Biffle's car "obviously was not right" and Burton spent the day in and out of trouble, getting collected in a five-car incident with 21 laps remaining that left him 18th.

I'm tired of people asking if we're gonna catch [Jimmie Johnson]. We're just gonna race as hard as we can every week. We've got three more chances, and then we're gonna start over next year.

-- Greg Biffle

"The way we ran we weren't thinking about picking ground up," a frustrated Burton said. "We were thinking about getting competitive."

The good news is Kevin Harvick, Gordon and Bowyer still have a shot at second, which didn't look possible before Sunday.

But Edwards would have to be the favorite for that spot. He won at Texas in the spring race and in the 2005 fall race after a win at Atlanta. He has momentum. Were it not for the wreck at Talladega that left him 29th and the electrical problem at Charlotte that left him 33rd, he could have six straight top-3s.

"Carl is doing his job," Gordon said. "He really is. He's been the guy I've had my eye on who is going to be the biggest threat."

But because of the two hiccups, and because Johnson's team has been so dominant, Edwards is only a threat for second.

And he's lucky to be as close as he is. According to Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, had they had a few more laps Sunday, "you never know who would have won."

Likely Johnson. He looked as though he had jet fuel in his engine the way he moved past all but one of the 10 cars ahead of him after pitting for four tires with 10 laps remaining.

"It wasn't that risky of a call because the guys that were behind us, I knew a bunch of them were going to be coming in," said Knaus, knowing the cars ahead would not pit. "If we had stayed out there … we probably would have wound up 12th."

They got second, putting Johnson in position to clinch the title in two weeks at Phoenix if he continues at this pace.

Thank goodness second will be up for grabs until Homestead.

Stay tuned for the exciting finish.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.