Is Johnson's reign ending? Not so fast

BY Larry McReynolds • October 17, 2011

If you sit back and look at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings after the race in Charlotte on Saturday night, you’ll find Jimmie Johnson now 35 behind. That's almost a full race behind the leader.

I can’t help but remember that, after two races, Jimmie was 29 points out and, two races later, he was only four points behind the leader.

This weekend, the race is at Talladega Superspeedway and we always call it one of those races where anything can and, usually does, happen. Knowing that, I am really hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of those pundits who are saying that Jimmie lost his bid for a sixth championship when he wrecked at Charlotte.

The 2011 championship aspirations of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin are over. They can now simply concentrate on winning one of the last handful of races this year and hopefully build some momentum toward the 2012 season.

I do believe there are only six drivers left who can realistically win the championship. And chief among them is Matt Kenseth.

With his win Saturday night, Kenseth is only seven points behind leader Carl Edwards. Kenseth has been solid as a rock this entire Chase for the Sprint Cup. We all pretty much knew Matt was going to be strong at Charlotte. When he qualifies well, as he did last week, he normally finishes well. And after watching him in practice, I just knew he was probably going to be a force to reckon with come race time.

Kenseth has never been known as a guy to make a lot of noise. But he definitely made noise Saturday night by winning the race and is sitting there third in the points. It is hard to believe this is Roush Fenway Racing’s first win since the July race at Daytona.

Actually, I felt even before the weekend began that the Roush Fenway cars were going to be tough, and they didn’t let me down. You had Matt winning the race. Edwards finished third. But the guy who actually had the car to beat was Greg Biffle, hands down. Unfortunately he had a loose lug nut early in the race and went a lap down.

It’s hard to imagine, but that was Greg’s 15th pit-road penalty of the year. That is simply an unbelievable number. That means that team was averaging a pit-road penalty about one every two races this season. Luckily, there were a lot of cautions and he still possibly had a car capable of winning, but then got into the wall late in the race.

Unfortunately, that is how Greg’s season has gone.

I know Kyle Busch was pretty disappointed with his lack of a win, especially when you consider he finished second two nights in a row to the Roush Fenway teams in the Nationwide and the Cup races. You can only be impressed with his performance, especially on Saturday night. He started last in the race, took the lead at one point and, as mentioned, finished second.

The great run makes him a player again in the championship hunt. Kyle is now only 18 points out of the lead. With five races still to go, he can easily make up that many points.

Kevin Harvick has to be pretty happy after Charlotte. I don’t think he and his Richard Childress Racing team believed they had a sixth-place car, but that’s where they finished. And now Kevin is in second place, only five points out of the lead.

You heard Tony Stewart's disappointment after he finished eighth. He had won the pole and was dominant early on. But he and his Stewart-Haas Racing team got off a bit and couldn’t get their dominance back. After two consecutive bad races, Tony is now sitting fifth, though only 24 points out. So he’s still a player in this deal.

Personally, I don’t think Johnson will win his sixth championship this year. It’s not the 35 points, but moreso the guys he has to get past to get back up front. Edwards is the one that is really impressive. He is top-fiving and top-10ing all over the place.

We’ve had five Chase races so far, and he has finished 10th or better in all of them. That is how championships are won.

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