The Chase for the Sprint Cup gets underway at Chicago this weekend with Jimmie Johnson seeking a sixth straight NASCAR title. Michael Wise runs a rule over the contenders.
Last Updated: September 14, 2011 11:34am
The Chase for the Sprint Cup gets underway at Chicago this weekend and the question sure to be mouthed by all in the 'NASCAR Nation' is whether anyone - anyone - can stop Jimmie Johnson winning a sixth straight title?
That one driver can exert such a hold on what, to the casual observer, tends to be seen as a demolition derby goes some way to proving that stock car racing does indeed have method to go with the madness; the downside, however, is depressingly obvious for non-Johnson fans who also like sport to offer at least the potential for a surprise. Not again.
Of course, we can't blame Johnson for others not reaching his record-breaking benchmark. During his title-winning spree the Californian, who turns 36 the day before the first Chase outing, has won 35 races and, clearly, is the man who can during the run-in. Take the 2007 season, for example, when he won four straight races out of the 10 that make up the play-off. Johnson is also the only driver to make the Chase in each year since its introduction in 2004.
A regular perusal of the standings in the run-up to the Chase field being set last weekend at Richmond suggests more of the same: there was something inevitable about JJ ghosting into the lead of the regular-season standings, having been there or thereabouts for most of it. Yet he is seeded only sixth for the Chase, which factors in race wins - and for those looking for a chink in Johnson's armour, the fact he has to date scored just one victory in 2011 stands as evidence that things might, just might, have changed.
Interestingly, that win came at Talladega Superspeedway in April; in other words, Johnson has so far failed to take the chequered flag on the intermediate, mile-and-a-half 'downforce' tracks that have been his meat and drink - and which make up half of the Chase schedule. According to NASCAR.com's Joe Menzer, the Hendrick Motorsports #48 Chevrolet team are "not finishing races like they used to" but six top-five finishes in the 10 races prior to Richmond suggest that he will be there or thereabouts. Johnson must, however, get back in the winning habit.
This might, then, be the season in which Johnson has finally met his match. But which of his rivals will put up the strongest fight? The seedings are topped by Kyle Busch, who has scored four wins to date this season. He achieved double that number in 2008 before mechanical problems wrecked his Chase; hopefully Joe Gibbs Racing will ensure no such repeat for the #18 Toyota this time. Busch has had another impressive, consistent season to date and yet it's the two drivers seeded second and third, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon, with whom the greater intrigue lies.
Harvick earned his Chase place months ago thanks to three early wins. Things then went off the boil somewhat for the #29 Richard Childress Racing team but focus shifted back to Harvick last weekend when he won at Richmond - his first top-five finish since June. Offering an explanation for their summer slump, crew chief Gil Morgan fended off suggestions they'd had an eye on the play-offs ever since their early-season successes, offering the assessment that, owing to some set-up blind alleys "we've run like crap". They've found the winning habit once more: can they maintain it?
The victory at Richmond was a team effort as Harvick's pit crew reacted quicker to a late caution (caused, incidentally, by Harvick's team-mate Paul Menard) and got him out ahead of Gordon, for whom victory would have been the fourth of what has been something of a comeback season. Not that Gordon has ever been away, but when a four-time champion fails to win a race in almost two years it somehow seems that way. His winless streak, which had lasted 66 races, was broken at Phoenix in February, with further victories being scored at both Pocono and Atlanta. In fact, Gordon has been the form driver during the summer and appears to be peaking at just the right time as he seeks what would be a first Chase win and first title in a decade.
Yet the one-time NASCAR pin-up, who turned 40 earlier this year, has not been the only driver to come on strong in recent months. From the other end of the career spectrum has emerged Brad Keselowski, contesting his second full season in the Penske Racing #2 Dodge and also a winner of three races, two of which, at Pocono and Bristol, came in August. What makes Keselowski's surge all the more impressive is that the first of those victories came just days after he suffered a broken ankle in a testing crash. Known as an uncompromising racer, the 27-year-old has polarised opinion ever since his first win at Talladega in 2009, when he nudged leader Carl Edwards into a spin - which turned into a huge wreck - approaching the chequered flag; his entrance into the Chase as a 'wild card' seems apt.
Joining Keselowski in entering through the back door as a driver with the most wins but finishing outside the top 10 is Denny Hamlin who, after pushing Johnson all the way last year, only makes it by the skin of his teeth this time around. At least he won a race, however, unlike both two-time champion Tony Stewart and fans' favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr., who are seeded ninth and 10th respectively and long shots at best.
Of the other runners, 2003 champion Matt Kenseth has shown little of late but still earns 'dark horse' status thanks to two early-season wins while the profile of Kurt Busch, like Johnson a one-time winner, is high ahead of the Chase thanks largely to an ongoing feud with the champ which flared up again at Richmond. The pair collided twice, with the second offence, committed by Johnson, seemingly payback for the first. The incidents have also been seen as evidence that the usually serene Johnson is feeling the pressure this time around; it will be interesting to see whether they renew acquaintance over the next 10 races.
Ryan Newman, who got into a similar fisticuffs (literally, according to reports) with Juan Pablo Montoya earlier in the season also makes the Chase, as does Edwards, who led the standings during the summer and also finished second at Richmond. Looking ahead, though, Kyle Busch, Harvick and Gordon seem the men most likely to knock Johnson off his perch, with Keselowski offering the potential for upsets.
1 Kyle Busch 2012 points (4 wins)(Last 10 races: 5th,1st,36th,10th,23rd,1st,14th,23rd,6th)
2 Kevin Harvick 2012 points (4 wins)(7,16,21,11,14,6,22,22,7,1)
3 Jeff Gordon 2009 points (3 wins)(6,10,11,2,6,13,6,3,1,3)
4 Matt Kenseth 2006 points (2 wins)(2,6,20,5,16,14,10,6,9,23)
5 Carl Edwards 2003 points (1 win)(37,5,13,14,7,12,36,9,5,2)
6 Jimmie Johnson 2003 points (1 win)(20,3,5,19,4,10,2,4,2,31)
7 Kurt Busch 2003 points (1 win)(14,9,10,21,3,38,34,17,4,5)
8 Ryan Newman 2003 points (1 win)(23,4,1,12,5,16,5,8,20,8)
9 Tony Stewart 2000 points (0 wins)(11,12,2,6,11,27,9,28,3,7)
10 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2000 points (0 wins)(19,30,15,16,9,15,14,16,19,16)
WC Brad Keselowski 2000 points (3 wins)(15,7,35,9,1,2,3,1,6,12)
WC Denny Hamlin 2000 points (1 win)(13,11,3,27,15,36,35,7,8,9)
September 18 Chicago (1.5-mile D-shaped oval, 2010 winner David Reutimann)
September 25 Loudon (1-mile short oval, 2011 winner Ryan Newman)
October 2 Dover (1-mile short oval, 2011 winner Matt Kenseth, JJ won 3 of the previous 4)
October 9 Kansas (1.5-mile D-shaped oval, 2011 winner Brad Keselowski)
October 15 Charlotte (1.5-mile quad oval, 2011 winner Kevin Harvick)
October 23 Talladega (2.66-mile superspeedway, 2011 winner Jimmie Johnson)
October 30 Martinsville (0.5-mile short oval, 2011 winner Kevin Harvick)
November 6 Texas (1.5-mile quad oval, 2011 winner Matt Kenseth)
November 13 Phoenix (1-mile tri-oval, 2011 winner Jeff Gordon)
November 20 Homestead (1.5-mile oval, 2010 winner Carl Edwards)