Who can end Johnson's streak?
Jimmie Johnson may have been down, but he was never out of NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup contention.
Sure, two weeks ago Johnson left New Hampshire Motor Speedway sitting 10th in the points standings, 29 back. And it had been five months since his No. 48 Lowe’s crew enjoyed one of its infamous celebrations in Victory Lane.
But following a commanding performance at Kansas Speedway where Johnson led a personal best 197 laps at the track, the second most for him on an intermediate track other than Charlotte Motor Speedway, it’s clear that Superman has found his cape once again.
So who can provide the kryptonite to stop Johnson’s charge to a sixth consecutive Sprint Cup championship?
Carl Edwards currently holds a four-point lead over Johnson. The No. 99 Aflac crew is so smart, they may overthink this championship. Certainly, Edwards' mental toughness allowed him to soldier back from what could have been a disastrous outing for the average driver at Kansas. But Edwards suggested crew chief Bob Osborne take “a large swing” at the ill-handling car and the driver came through behind the wheel.
This team has been a serious contender before. But while Edwards and Osborne are busy diagnosing the minutia, Johnson’s laid-back demeanor allows him to worry about nothing but winning -- and his celebratory six-pack.
Where Edwards has been short on wins this season, both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch used their winning ways to lead the points standings entering the Chase. Harvick’s most recent win came at Richmond International Raceway to tie Busch with four victories in the regular season. Harvick is now second in points. He’s posted an average finish of 7.5 in the first four Chase races and maintains a three-point advantage over Johnson. In true Richard Childress Racing style, Harvick can channel his inner Intimidator and mind-game Johnson to death.
Kyle Busch has yet to factor into the Chase. He’s already 20 points behind Edwards and 16 points behind Johnson in eighth place in the standings. Busch appeared headed for a top-five in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway before running out of gas and finishing 22nd. In the last three races, Busch’s performances have been lackluster -- two finishes of 11th and a sixth at Dover. Busch could get hot again, but has only won each at just two of the six tracks in the Chase, Talladega Superspeedway and Phoenix International Raceway. Both are wild cards as Talladega breeds crashes and Phoenix has been altered since the drivers last raced there.
Another disadvantage for Busch is that the Joe Gibbs Racing cars just haven’t been that fast. Teammate Denny Hamlin has been so disappointed with his cars that he demanded Toyota Racing Development engines and has vowed to incorporate “a bunch of radical changes” to his cars in the final six Chase races, something Busch simply can’t afford to do. But with Hamlin’s team testing setups for next year, Busch will have to operate without a teammate in the Chase.
Brad Keselowski has lived up to his wild-card status in the Chase. His No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge team, led by Paul Wolfe, has incorporated unconventional strategy this season. While many Chase teams adopt a conservative approach, Wolfe, though very calculatingly, takes chances to gain Keselowski track position and often wins. As Keselowski so "humbly" pointed out on Sunday, “If it wasn’t for the power steering last week, we’d probably have the points lead.” Take out that 20th-place finish at Dover and Keselowski’s average finish in the remaining three races is 3.3.
The 27-year-old, third-generation racer is plenty savvy. Keselowski’s already under Edwards’ skin, he just hasn’t had a good reason to climb under Johnson’s yet.
Matt Kenseth can simply kill Johnson with kindness. On Sunday, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion tweeted to @Jimmie Johnson: I thought you were washed up, done, no chance, out of it....at least that's what I heard at dover...." Two minutes later Kenseth added, “Congrats to @jimmiejohnson chad, and his pink hat!” But seriously, Kenseth shows up when competitors least expect him, primarily because qualifying has never been his strong suit. But qualifying aside, Kenseth will top five and top 10 the competition to death.
Kenseth is 12 points behind Edwards. He won the pole at Chicagoland Speedway and led 46 laps, but ran out of gas and finished 21st. In his other three Chase races, Kenseth’s average finish is fifth, the same as Edwards.
Tony Stewart set the tone early in the Chase by winning the first two races at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, but he was never a factor at Dover (25th) and appeared to rediscover his “dead weight” at Kansas (15th) about the time he slid through his pits on the final stop and couldn’t recover. Stewart dropped from third to seventh in points, 19 behind Edwards.
Stewart and Jeff Gordon have the same Hendrick Motorsports equipment and equal championship caliber talent to Johnson. But both drivers have exhausted their mulligans for the 2011 Chase. Gordon’s engine failure Sunday coupled with running out of gas at Chicagoland have placed him in a 47-point hole, four markers behind Dale Earnhardt Jr., and in 10th-place. If any drivers are capable of halting Johnson’s six-pack crusade, it would be Smoke and Gordon. But it will take wins from that pair and problems for Johnson to even catch him.
And if all else fails, Kurt Busch can stop Johnson the old-fashioned way -- with the chrome horn. Busch has not been shy when expressing his disdain for his “nemesis” Johnson and he’s still well within striking distance, just 16 points behind Edwards and 12 points behind the No. 48 team. Busch has the equipment. He’s led laps in all four Chase races, 164 circuits overall. So he’s more than capable of reaching Johnson’s bumper. If Busch can stay in the hunt through the season finale at Miami-Homestead -- or even if he can't -- this could be a “boys have at it” season finale of epic proportion.