Even though he and his team have been below the radar most of this season, it is safe to say everyone still knows that any time there is a championship run, you have to factor Jimmie Johnson into that picture.
Jimmie has now taken over the points lead with only four races to go in our regular season.
We have run 22 races and, if you remove the three restrictor-plate races from the equation – because as we always tell you that type of racing is really a wild card – Jimmie’s worst finish this year is 14th. Taking that a step further, again removing the three restrictor-plate events, Jimmie only has three races with finishes outside of the top 10.
Now remember, this is a guy and a team that crashed out on Lap 2 of the Daytona 500 to start the season and was sitting clear back in 37th in points. The team has turned a complete 180 degrees. Right now, Jimmie would be the No. 1 seed in the 2012 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup since Johnson has three wins and leads the points race.
What a remarkable turnaround.
Like most of the drivers in the upper part of the top 10 in points, Jimmie is focused on one thing and that is winning any or all of these remaining four races before the Chase starts. Don’t forget that each win in the regular season gives you three additional bonus points when the Chase field is set and the points reset.
On the other end of the Chase spectrum, Denny Hamlin has got to be a little careful. Finishing 34th Sunday at Watkins Glen with engine issues sent Denny sliding back two spots to 10th.
Kasey Kahne has tightened the points deficit between he and Denny down to 40. Don’t get me wrong, 40 points is a lot, because with four races left Kasey would need to average bettering Denny by 10 points a race.
With his two wins, Denny is going to make the Chase, regardless of what happens with the points. That said, he is definitely keeping an eye on the guys behind him because should he fall out of the top 10 in points and be forced to use one of the two wild-card spots, then the six bonus points for his two wins don’t get added into his total. Only the drivers in the top 10 in points when the regular season ends are awarded bonus points for each win.
Pretty much everyone else is worried about winning. With Jimmie now on top, the two Roush Fenway Racing Fords of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle are second and third in points. Each driver only has one win. Both know they need another one.
When you have three guys in Jimmie, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski with three wins each and you only have one win under your belt, then you are starting the Chase looking up at them.
The spread gets even greater if you are Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. They have no wins yet and so they would start the Chase already nine points behind Jimmie, Tony and Brad.
I am a big believer in momentum. I think you want to enter the Chase on a high with everything hitting on all eight cylinders. That’s the way everyone wants to go into the Chase. The poster child for the complete opposite of that is Tony Stewart last year.
He was at the lowest of lows following the Richmond race last September. He entered the Chase with no wins, which also meant no bonus points. He even told the media that neither he nor the team deserved to be in last year’s Chase. Of course, as every NASCAR fan knows, it was one of the greatest turnarounds in NASCAR history with Tony going on to win five of the 10 Chase races, tying Carl Edwards in points and then winning the championship over Carl because of all those wins.
So Tony is living proof you don’t have to go into the Chase on a high note. Tony didn’t go into the Chase that way, but he sure made up for it in a hurry, winning the first two Chase races and setting the sport on its ear. With the God-given talent that Tony has and the team he had around him, he really is the exception to the rule.
Is it too early to be looking at a favorite in this year’s Chase? I don’t think so.
I also don’t think you have to look any further than that No. 48 team to find the one to beat. If you go walk through that NASCAR Sprint Cup garage, to a person they are all looking over there at Jimmie and his Lowe’s team.
As we said many times during his five consecutive championships, once again, the road to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup crown travels through Johnson’s team.