And then there were five…..
NASCAR’s “Dream Chase” has turned into a nightmare for more than half of the field through the first six races of the playoffs.
As most predicted last week’s stop in Talladega provided a major jolt to the standings and as the series heads to tiny Martinsville Speedway this Sunday there are five drivers legitimately left in the championship race.
Jimmie Johnson is not one of them.
Just 26 points separate Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, as the Chase moves toward race number seven.
Johnson sits a distant seventh and fifty points off the pace.
The run for a sixth straight title was put in major jeopardy in Talladega after a strategy to hang out in the back of the field with Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and draft to the front in the final stages backfired.
The pair ran out of time and waited too long to make their move for the lead giving Johnson a 26th place finish and effectively ending his bid for championship number six.
Quite frankly Johnson would need a miracle to find his way back into the title fight.
For the record, Johnson defended the Talladega strategy even if it didn’t quite work out the way he’d anticipated and blamed circumstances for the outcome rather than poor planning.
“We planned our strategy like we had hoped to,” Johnson said. “And on that last restart at the end; we had some issues with my car overheating. That last caution that came out I got some trash and grass and stuff on the grill of the car. We were out of sequence the way we were lined up.
“I was going to push Junior and I had to be in the lead the way we had the debris on the grill. And then as we went to make our switch, the pack was organized and with the green-white-checkered situation, there’s not a lot of time to get organized and we lost our momentum there and got to the outside and kind of stalled out up on the top and finished far worse than we had hoped to.”
Johnson also didn’t concede the championship either and despite the monumental challenge he now faces hasn’t given up in the quest to add to his history-making run.
“We’ve just got to keep fighting and keep working on getting every point we can at every race,” Johnson said. “We have no clue what’s going to happen to all the Chase drivers and I want to finish as high as I possibly can in the Chase. That does mean the championship.”
Johnson’s attitude is to be admired but the reality of the situation is too much to overcome.
Under the old point system that was used before this year’s simpler 43-1 distribution plan, Johnson would be just about 141 markers out of the lead. He did come back from 146 back with five races to go in his 2006 march to the title and followed that up in 2007 when he won four straight races inside the final five.
But even if he were to go on a similar hot streak this season he’d need six others currently ahead of him in the championship picture to all falter down the stretch.
It’s a possibility for one or two of them to have difficulties in the next four race but probably wishful thinking that all six will self-destruct even for the most ardent Johnson fan.
However some of Johnson’s competitors aren’t ready to wave the white flag for the 48 team just yet.
"Anything is possible," said Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon. "If you're a good enough team, then it's possible, and that's what makes them so dangerous. They are capable of pulling those types of finishes together when you might not expect it. There are a couple of other teams out there that are capable of doing that as well. You can't count anybody out yet."
Even the man on top of the heap isn’t ruling anything out remembering Johnson’s impossible come back in 2006.
"It is possible," said Edwards, who finished 11th at Talladega and was able to stretch his lead to fourteen over second place Kenseth. "I feel like we have had a run like that the last five races, but not as good as that run. It is so competitive right now.
“I think it will be more difficult for someone to have that blistering run where they knock off four or five top-threes or -fours in a row, but it is possible. The problem is, it is possible for six or eight guys to do it. So it comes down to circumstance and luck and strategy. I hope we are the guys that can do that, but I believe it is more competitive now. I will just leave it at that."
Johnson has been nothing short of spectacular throughout his five year reign as NASCAR champion. But as Halloween weekend approaches even he won’t be able to bring this year’s title hopes back from the grave.
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