Can anyone catch Jimmie Johnson before – or after – the Chase begins?
After the five-time champ scored his fourth Sprint Cup win of the season Saturday night at Daytona and extended his points advantage to 49 over second-place Clint Bowyer, it seems unlikely.
Not only does Johnson have the experience of grinding it out over the summer months, collecting data to decimate the competition when it comes down to the final 10 races in the Chase, his team hasn’t used any of its tests that NASCAR provided organizations with at the start of the season to acclimate to the Generation 6 car.
So who are the possible contenders that have a shot at thwarting Johnson’s six-pack?
1. Matt Kenseth. Who knew a fresh start could rejuvenate the 41-year-old driver – not that the 2003 champ needed a catalyst to be up on the wheel. Kenseth became the first driver this season to notch four wins – even before Johnson – and he’s not through yet. Under the leadership of Jason Ratcliff, the team is as invigorated as its driver and ready to return to championship form. Its only weakness? Finishing races. Among drivers in the top 10, Kenseth and teammate Kyle Busch lead the DNF category with three each.
2. Kevin Harvick. He has eight consecutive top-10 finishes and likely will pass Carl Edwards for third in the standings at New Hampshire this weekend. With two wins this season, Harvick is a lock for the Chase. Although he’s been toward the top in points in the past, both Harvick and the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing team have something to prove before the driver leaves at the end of the year.
3. Clint Bowyer. He capitalized on Johnson’s issues at the end of last year to finish a career-best second in the standings in just his first full season with Michael Waltrip Racing. In Year 2, the No. 15 team and crew chief Brian Patties have shown their consistency in the laps Bowyer has completed – 5,229 of 5,247 raced this season (99.7 percent), second only to Johnson. Still, after earning a career-high three victories last season, Bowyer, winless in 2013, needs to get back on that track again.
4. Kyle Busch. With two wins, Busch is in a solid position to earn a place in the Chase. He has battled the same inconsistency issues as Kenseth this season, but it appears Toyota Racing Development has solved its engine woes. The good news for Rowdy fans is Busch still has plenty of speed and has won at six of the next eight tracks before the Chase.
5. Carl Edwards. Edwards has simply maintained his position among the top 10 in points since his March 3 win at Phoenix. Though one win and consistency will get Edwards in the Chase, he must step up his game to be a challenger to Johnson. Edwards and the No. 99 team fell flat two weeks ago at Kentucky after leading 35 laps – his most at the point since Phoenix. With five intermediate tracks in the Chase, this team needs a better handle on 1.5-milers.
And who lacks the complete package to close the deal?
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior started the season with five consecutive top-10 finishes and even led the points standings after Fontana. The No. 88 team has been out front for 92 laps this season – but in only four events. After 18 races, Earnhardt is winless again, and if his team isn’t capable of winning races it will find it nearly impossible to win the title.
2. Greg Biffle. The No. 16 team has more experience together than that of its Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards and seems more capable of taking risks for reward. Though that paid off for Biffle at Michigan, it was one of only two tracks the No. 16 Ford has led laps at this season.
3. Kurt Busch. The 2004 champion has the potential to win races and even make the Chase this year. However, it may take more than just one season to pull this team — and pit crew — together. Despite Furniture Row Racing’s relationship with Richard Childress Racing, the organization lacks the depth to contend for the title against a team such as Johnson’s.
4. Brad Keselowski. Will he or won’t he make the Chase this year? Did anyone really believe the defending champ would venture 18 races into 2013 without a win? Yes, Penske Racing changed manufacturers this year, is dealing with the Generation 6 car and has been hit with more than its share of penalties, but his average finish of 15.7 proves the performance simply isn’t champion-like.
5. Jeff Gordon. Last year, the four-time champ was 17th in the standings after the Coke Zero 400 and battled back in the final eight races to earn a Chase berth. But his five DNFs this season – more than any other driver in the top 30 – will be the undoing for Gordon and the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports crew.
When it comes to kickin’ it, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has some ideas for his buckle bunny aka Danica Patrick:
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. @StenhouseJr
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4 Wins at New Hampshire for Jeff Burton – more than any other active driver. Four drivers – Busch, Gordon, Johnson and Tony Stewart – have three Cup victories each at this weekend’s track.
5 Tracks of the remaining eight before the Chase where Kenseth has never won.
16.7 Kyle Busch’s average finish at New Hampshire – the lowest of any driver among the top 10 in points.
When a reporter asked AJ Allmendinger whether he was OK after exiting the infield care center at Daytona International Speedway during the Sprint Cup race, Allmendinger replied, “It knocked the wind out of me and hurt the man parts for a second.”