After Kyle Busch crashed at Kansas Speedway – not once, but twice during the NASCAR Sprint Cup race on Sunday – he wrecked his position in the points standings as well. Busch trailed points leader Johnson by 18 entering Sunday’s STP 400. With his early exit and 38th-place finish, coupled with Johnson’s third-place finish, a 54-point deficit exists between now seventh-place Busch and Johnson.
That’s more points than the winning driver of a race earns after leading the most laps (48). And he’s not alone. Following the first eight races of the season, Johnson could sit out an event and still have an edge on every driver from fifth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is 48 points behind, on back through the field. And he’s already 37 points ahead of Kasey Kahne, who is second.
The size of Johnson’s advantage raises the question: Can the Chase for the Sprint Cup come soon enough for most of the competitors?
Ironically, it was Sunday’s winner Matt Kenseth and the consistency of his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team in their quest for the 2003 Sprint Cup title that served as the catalyst for NASCAR’s ‘playoff’ system. Kenseth’s title run, in which he led the points for 33 of the 36 races, wasn’t sexy enough. His single win at Las Vegas wasn’t flashy enough. And his 436-point lead over then second-place Kevin Harvick with eight races remaining in the season (before two engine failures leveled his advantage to a mere 90 points over Johnson) wasn’t marketable enough.
In 2003, when maximum race points were 185, Kenseth had earned a full race on every competitor except Johnson in the final standings. His lead over third-place finisher Earnhardt Jr. was 207 points.
This year, Johnson’s consistency has paid off. He won twice in the first six races. His third-place finish at Kansas Speedway was his fourth top-five of the season. His laps led (439) are second only to Kenseth (482) and he’s completed 99.9 percent of all laps raced. Johnson’s average finish is currently 6.6, just slightly better than defending champion Brad Keselowski (7.2), who is third in the standings following the 25-point penalty NASCAR assessed after unapproved parts were discovered on the No. 2 Ford at Texas. The penalty is currently under appeal.
Still, Johnson’s 37-point advantage over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kahne is the largest lead a driver has established after the first eight races in a season since 2005. That year, Johnson held a 173-point lead over Kurt Busch. Under the current points system introduced in 2011, the advantage would equate to roughly 43 points.
Johnson did not win the title that year, but it started a practice for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team of using the points cushion to test throughout the summer in anticipation of the 10 races in the Chase that served it well over the next five consecutive championship seasons. It’s a strategy crew chief Chad Knaus’ crew executed so successfully that other teams have since adopted the process.
In the four races already run at tracks where the Cup tour will run again this fall in the Chase, Johnson has an average finish of third. He finished second at Phoenix, sixth at Texas, third at Kansas and won at Martinsville. Yes, Johnson has yet to win at the two tracks which only appear in the Chase – Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami Speedway. But he has earned 32 of his 62 career Cup wins at the other eight tracks in the Chase.
When the points are recalculated to reflect wins after Richmond on Sept. 7, which drivers have the best shot at spoiling Johnson’s pursuit of a six-pack?
1. Brad Keselowski
Don’t count the defending champ out. After Keselowski was forced to pit early with damage on Sunday and was lapped 23 circuits into the race, he salvaged a sixth-place finish sans bumper cover. Although his numbers pale in comparison to the five-time champion’s, Keselowski posted a career-best five wins last season, including two in the Chase, to best Johnson by 39 points and win the title.
2. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth, a perennial Chase candidate, has not lost a step since leaving Roush Fenway Racing. In fact, he’s stronger than ever. While his crew chief Jason Ratcliff acknowledges there’s “still work ahead,” this team jelled almost instantly. Plus, Kenseth is making the most of resources he never had access to in the past. While Kenseth has only won at five of the Chase tracks, he’s continuing to learn from his new teammates and improving at places such as Martinsville where he has been outperformed in the past.
3. Kasey Kahne
Like Kenseth, Kahne acclimated to his new surroundings quickly last season. Certainly, bringing his crew chief Kenny Francis and team engineer Keith Rodden expedited the process and some pundits expected Kahne to be a title contender last year. Despite a slow start to the 2013 season, in the last six races Kahne’s average finish is 4.8. Considering that Kahne has access to the same resources of Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports, the teams will determine the difference.
4. Kyle Busch
Erase Busch’s engine failure at Daytona and his inability to grasp – and grip – Kansas Speedway and the No. 18 team would have an average finish of 4.3 this season. Busch has led the third-most laps (435) and posted two wins in the first eight races. But the Chase has never been kind to Busch. When he qualifies for the Chase – and with two victories Busch should be a lock – the team will have to work to remain consistent as it cannot afford a throwaway race the way it misjudged Kansas. Busch’s career wins (26) are equal to Kenseth’s. And he’s won at six of the current Chase tracks. However, if the 27-year-old is considered a serious title contender, he will have to find the necessary consistency in the final 10 races to compete at Johnson’s level.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Similar to Kahne, Earnhardt has the resources of Hendrick Motorsports at his disposal. Heck, he and Johnson’s teams are housed under the same roof. But the missing link for Earnhardt is laps led and ultimately wins. While the No. 88 team started the season strong with five consecutive top-10 finishes, Sunday was the first time Earnhardt led a lap since the race at Phoenix on March 3. Unfortunately, the crew’s pit cycle did not play in its favor. While he and crew chief Steve Letarte communicate well, to contend when the Chase starts, the team will need to step up when it comes to facing adversity.
6. Clint Bowyer
It would be foolish to overlook Bowyer, who finished second in the points standings last season in his first year at Michael Waltrip Racing. A fresh start with crew chief Brian Pattie rejuvenated the 33-year-old, who won a career-best three races. But of the top 10 drivers in the points standings, Bowyer has led the fewest laps (1). And of his eight career victories, only three were earned at tracks also featured in the Chase. Still, Bowyer’s potential cannot be overlooked. He won the fall race at Richmond, where the NASCAR tour competes this weekend. Certainly, a third career Cup win at the track could provide Bowyer with the momentum he and the No. 15 team need to get on a roll.