At this point in time, Jimmie Johnson has to be considered the odds-on favorite going into the Chase for the Sprint Cup to repeat as champion.
With that said, anyone can be beat. Tony Stewart showed everyone that last year when he came back from being left for dead at the start of the NASCAR Chase to being crowned a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
I think the first two races will be the key indicator to me of who the real contenders are. Remember, again going back to Tony, he came out of the box on fire and won the first two Chase races of 2011. He never really looked back after that.
Now Jimmie and crew chief Chad Knaus know how to rebound. They both know how to be prepared and obviously know what it takes to win the Chase. If they continue to make strides like they have these last few weeks, then they are going to be really hard to beat, in my opinion.
If I were still a competitor up on the box, I would be really worried about that No. 48 team because they seem to be hitting their stride at the perfect time. They have an amazing ability to be prepared for any situation. Look at Saturday night’s race at Bristol. They started well back in the field, but worked their way forward to where not only were they scoring points, but they were in position to win the race.
That’s something you have to admire about these champions and their championship team. They know what they want. They know how to do it. Each and every year, they are right there at the top. You cannot overlook their resilience, their ability to adjust and overcome, nor their determination to return to the top.
While it is great to have your three other teammates running well too, Jimmie Johnson’s is clearly the best car over there. His team doesn’t have to have the other three Hendrick Motorsports teams running well for it to succeed. It can stand on its own two feet very well.
With two races to go before the Chase, while I know Jimmie Johnson and his team want another win, I believe their main focus will be making sure they are totally prepared when the Chase starts. After the checkered flag waves at Richmond in two weeks, basically what you did in the regular season is somewhat irrelevant.
The Chase field will be set. The points then reset and really the only thing coming out of the regular season at that point is the bonus points you will receive for each win. Teams like Jimmie’s with multiple wins will start near the top. Conversely, unless Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. win in the next two weeks, they will start the Chase near the bottom as they have no wins and thus no bonus points.
I promise you that the No. 48 is looking at Chicago and Loudon, the first two Chase races, to come out and put a one-two punch on the other 11 competitors. They want to send an early signal that they are the biggest and toughest kid on the block and the road to the championship will have to go through them. I know this is a big goal that Johnson and his team want to accomplish.