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Three racing battles to watch this fall

McLaren Formula One driver Jenson Button of Britain is overtaken by Ferrari Formula One driver Fernando Alonso of Spain (front) during the Italian F1 Grand Prix at the Monza circuit September 12, 2010.

Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

With three major racing series' championships going down to the wire, the next two months should be an exciting time to be a racing fan.

NASCAR's Chase for the Cup gets underway this weekend in New Hampshire as the top 12 point scorers from the first 26 races battle for the Sprint Cup championship.

For the past four years, Jimmie Johnson has been in complete control of the 10-race Chase series by the November finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but this year may be different.

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"Superman," as Johnson in known in the paddock, seems to have had some Kryptonite hidden in his car this season and 2010 could be the year someone steals his cape.

A couple of Chase qualifiers, notably Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin peaked at just the right time, stepping things up as the Chase approached. Edwards in particular showed top form in the 10 races leading to New Hampshire, scoring nine top-10 finishes. After being fined by NASCAR earlier this season for criticizing the sport's penchant for throwing full course caution flags to tighten the field near the end of races and questioning the wisdom of the Chase format on Twitter, Hamlin, who scored a season high six wins, may get the sweetest revenge by taking the title.

With seats going empty and television numbers sagging, a highly competitive Chase is just what NASCAR needs this year.

The same goes for Formula One, which ends the season with five fly-away races that will determine the 2010 champion. With five drivers from three teams still in the hunt for the world title, it's anyone's guess who will be crowned after the final race in Abu Dhabi on November 14.

In the mix are three world champions, two-time title winner Fernando Alonso of Ferrari, McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and his teammate and reigning champion Jenson Button. Two drivers looking for their first title are Red Bull teammates Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. Webber leads the points battle by a slim six over Hamilton.

But the Red Bull driver may have a huge advantage in the final five starts due to his ability to take care of his car. The Australian has two new motors left from his season allotment of eight, while Button, Hamilton and Vettel have only one available. Alonso has already used all eight.

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In what may have been a brilliant tactical move, Webber decided to forgo a fresh engine in the last start at the high-speed Monza circuit while his challengers all opted for a new motor. Red Bull knew its car would likely not be a threat to win in Italy, but Webber still emerged atop the standings by five points thanks to Hamilton making a gigantic mistake and crashing out of the race on the first lap. And Webber saved using a new engine in the process, something that should offer him a huge advantage in the last five events.

Unfortunately, despite all the talk about excitement in F1 this year, the sport still lacks action at the front unless there's rain. While many hyped the Italian Grand Prix as a thrilling battle between Button and Alonso, it really came down to a pitstop challenge between the Ferrari and McLaren crews. Alonso's crew won and he essentially overtook Button who was sitting stationary in his pitbox. Not exactly thrilling stuff.

F1 may also be kicking itself for changing the points system this year.

The higher totals make the gap calculations between drivers much more difficult and harder for casual fans to follow. Had F1 kept the old system, which awarded a maximum of 10 points per race, the top-5 would be only nine markers apart, with Hamilton leading Webber by one point, 75-74, followed by Alonso and Button tied at 67 and Vettel at 66. Under the former system, fans could watch the action and understand the championship implications as the races unfolded without consulting a calculator. Instead, with 25 points awarded per win and a more complicated points distribution than the old system, fans have a tough time following the championship battle during grand prix, and that's simply frustrating.

Speaking of slide rules, the IndyCar Series also has an extremely tight battle at the top that's difficult to decipher. Australian Will Power leads by 17 points over two-time and reigning champion Dario Franchitti.

Obviously, if Power can finish ahead of his rival, he stays ahead. But, trying to figure out the points possibilities when a driver gets 10 just for starting their engine for the race makes things difficult at best.

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With a maximum 53 points up for grabs at each race, Franchitti's teammate Scott Dixon has a mathematical shot but he essentially needs to win Saturday night at the Twin Ring Motegi Circuit in Japan and have Franchitti and Power crash into each other on the first lap.

Realistically, the title race is between the two drivers at the top, and if history is any indication, Power better take a sizable lead into the finale in Miami next month. In his last two championship seasons in 2007 and 2009, Franchitti snatched the title from his rivals by winning the final race of the year.

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About the Author
Motorsports columnist

There's an old saying about timing being everything in racing and Jeff Pappone's career as a motorsport correspondent shows that it also applies to journalists covering the sport too. More

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