The Inside NASCAR team discusses Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s lack of focus, what's happened to Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson coming up short.
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Posted on: October 6, 2011 11:40 am
The Inside NASCAR team discusses Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s lack of focus, what's happened to Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson coming up short.
Posted on: October 2, 2011 8:33 pm
Posted by Pete Pistone
KEVIN HARVICK: No, not at all. Obviously we circled this one as a place to come to, to overcome some things, and the guys did a good job today. We were just so loose on two tires, which is kind of backwards from what it should be, but we had to put two tires on there at the end to protect the track position side of it. So all in all it was okay.
Q. How have you circled Kansas, because that's not a place you've had a lot of success, either?
KEVIN HARVICK: You must look at a different stat sheet than I do. We have run really well there the last few times and I think we should be fine.
Q. Looking for your first win, I guess is what I'm saying.
KEVIN HARVICK: Yeah, if you're looking for wins; you know, right now we are looking for a championship so whatever we have got to do to fight through that is what we'll do. Obviously you need to run good at all of them. You can run bad at any of them to tell you the truth but Kansas has been a place where we have been pretty solid.
Q. Coming into Dover it's usually pretty hot out there, how did it feel with the weather, and the rain through the cautions probably didn't help too much, but as far as temperature goes inside.
KEVIN HARVICK: Yeah, inside the car, obviously cool days are great for us. But I think I would rather have had a hotter day than today, just because I felt like our car was better in practice when temperatures were warmer. It seemed like the groove that I was running in practice really wasn't there for us today because our car was too loose.
So, you know, it was good for inside the car but not great for the handling conditions of our Rheem Chevrolet.
Q. I think 11 points changes during the first 26 races; why does it seem like more this year than maybe in the past?
KEVIN HARVICK: I think the competition level is so even. I don't think you're going to see anybody come in here and dominate like you have before, as far as just taking off and running away. You're going to be consistent and solid and it's just a matter of keeping yourself in it until you get to the last couple of races and if you can keep yourself in contention, hopefully you've eliminated most of the other guys in the Chase.
Q. The new points system this year, do you think that plays a factor in how you look at the competition, seeing, wow, they are only two back or five back or the Top-5 or ten back or something like?
KEVIN HARVICK: It's definitely easier to add up.
I think the points system definitely has changed the complexion of having a bad day. I think when you have a bad day, it hurts you worse than it had in the past. Maybe it just seems that way, but it also seems like if you can win some races, you can make up ground fairly quick and get up front and get the bonus points and the things you need to do.
A lot of those guys that were pretty far back, that everybody thought were pretty far back had a pretty great day today and won't seem that far back anymore. You just have to take it one week at a time and I would much rather be sitting on top of the points three weeks in than sitting 12th. So we'll just keep at it.
KERRY THARP: Only 15 points separate the top eight; 15 points separate the top eight drivers.
Q. Did anything surprise you from the way this race went, the other competitors, Jimmie being strong, Carl being up there; did anything surprise you today?
KEVIN HARVICK: You look at this racetrack, obviously the 48 has had a lot of success here and the 18 has had success and the 99 has had success. So it's been a good racetrack for those guys, and obviously not a super strong racetrack for us. But we felt like we had been solid over the last couple of years not to win the race but solid enough to get decent finishes and get out of here.
KERRY THARP: Thank you so much and congratulations on taking over the points lead and we'll see you at Kansas. Thank you.
Our race runner-up is Jimmie Johnson, five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series defending champion and Jimmie comes back with a strong second-place finish here today. And talk about that, Jimmie. You certainly had a car that could -- you had a race-winning car and certainly you were strong and a tired day and certainly one of those tracks you feel like you needed to excel at that.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Obviously a great day for us, to lead that many laps and to have great stops on pit road across the board, very, very strong effort. Wish that we could be one spot better but I just did not get two good restarts at the end of that thing and cost myself.
KERRY THARP: After today you are in fifth place, just 15 points out of the lead. So you made up a lot of ground today here at Dover.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Are we out of it? Last week I was considered done.
KERRY THARP: Jimmie, you are never out of it.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Just making sure, Kerry.
Q. Coming here to Dover for a third race in the Chase, do you think that plays into the factor of how the Chase shakes out; when you won your past championships and prior years past, it was the second race; do you think it makes a difference or it benefitted you more that it's the third race in the Chase?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't think it really matters to be honest with you. When I looked at the schedule, with Atlanta not being in the Chase, that's been a tough track for us to consistently run well at and Chicago has been a more consistent track. My focus was more on the Chicago Atlanta switch. Didn't really matter to know. I was happy to that I was in the Chase; that Dover was in the Chase.
KERRY THARP: We are joined by Carl Edwards. Carl is tied with Kevin Harvick for the number of points, but Kevin would get the higher seed due to the tie-breaker rules.
But great showing out there today, Carl. You come in third place, you were up front most of the day. You had that speeding penalty on pit road, you came back, your car was extremely fast. Really put on a great show, you and Jimmie did, and Kurt, as well. Toward the end of that race. Congratulations.
CARL EDWARDS: It was a great day, other than that feeling I had when I ruined it there on pit road. That's about as small as you can feel in a race car.
We talked about it before the race. We looked at the pit road speeding lines and that last line, Bob and I actually discussed the last section. It's 25 feet, eight inches long, and we talked about that run and how I was not going to speed through it, and I just blasted right through it.
We were very, very fortunate. As frustrated as I am with myself for messing that up, I'm really, really grateful for the gift that was given to us with that caution and the ability to come back up there.
And the other thing that was really important to me was my guys sticking behind me, because they had every right to be really, really upset with me. So ended up being a good finish. I had a good time racing there with Jimmie the last couple of laps. That was fun.
Q. You mentioned the last two restarts, and Kurt looked like in a pro-stock the way he took off; was that a case of him being so much better or you not hitting your mark right?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I did a really good job, up until those last two. I have to say, when you're the leader, you have a small advantage, because you go when you want. I blew it by spinning the tires. Kurt got a good launch, and we were door to door going into one, and he was able to get by on the outside.
And then the next one, I was going to try to do that same thing back to him, and I was just trying to time it when he was going to accelerate. And I didn't time it right. And I had too big of a gap, and fell in behind him going into turn one.
I put it on me, because the starts I had earlier in the day, regardless of the lane, leading or not -- yard guys, I cleared them typically going into one so, it's on me.
Q. The two of you have had really very similar seasons, both of you have won one time and won once, and both of you could have run a number of other races. The regular season is sort of graded on a curve for the Chase, but the Chase is just a system that rewards consistency. Have either of you ever had seasons when you have actually been more consistent?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Is that a brain teaser? You're making me think, man.
CARL EDWARDS: I don't know either.
Q. Tony Stewart complains that we don't make him think and now you complain that we do.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: (Laughing).
Q. Are the two of you proud of your damn consistency?
CARL EDWARDS: I'm really proud of my consistency (laughing). It feels good that runs a team on average as well as we have this year and to have an opportunity to win races. It's a little frustrating that we have not won more of them. I know Kenny Bruce had some advice for me the other day and I've been trying to think about that, trying to win more so we can get more points. But it has been a good season.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think that the year that we raced Jeff for the championship, I know in the Chase, at least, we won a lot of races. I feel like that was maybe my most consistent year. I don't know how the regular season was.
But you know, victory lane, there's nothing like it. I wish that -- especially in the first 26, the consistency wasn't there, but we went to victory lane more; would have been a better regular season for me.
Q. We have seen in the first three races, a pattern of you being up there, contending for top-five finishes in Chicago, you run out of gas the final lap. You go to New Hampshire, you were on track for a top-ten finish and you struggle with Kyle Busch's contact in the final laps, and then here, it looked like you led the most laps, you're in contention to win, and then you end up finishing second. Do you feel like you've left a lot of points on the table the first three races and do you look back and say, oh, that's going to hurt me down the road? Or are you confident with the speed you've shown in the first three races and you're saying, okay, I feel like I'm in good position for the final seven.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I look at it and say we left points on the table. New Hampshire, for sure -- all three of them, absolutely, without a doubt. Not getting the restart I needed today at the end, that's on me and no one else.
Definitely. This Chase is so tough to know what it's going to take, and I just -- we look at the 14 car, and what he did in the first two races and then the struggles they had today. I think it speaks to how tough these ten races are going to be and how you think somebody is on fire and the fire can go out.
So we'll just keep fighting hard. I hate leaving points on the table, and we have these first three.
Q. You both talked about essentially mistakes that you made today that prevented you from winning. How do you get over that? How long does that take? What's that process in moving forward?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: If I was Carl, I wouldn't get over that mistake.
CARL EDWARDS: (Laughing ).
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I maybe wouldn't show up next week.
CARL EDWARDS: But you're not me.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No. No
CARL EDWARDS: It is tough. It's frustrating. I think if I were Jimmie, I would be so frustrated I gave up that win. He had otherwise a perfect day. It would probably bother me all week if I were Jimmie.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: (Laughing). Not sure we answered your question.
CARL EDWARDS: I go shooting. That helps. (Laughing).
No, it is tough. Someone wrote a long time ago -- I don't remember which book it was but my buddy, Carl Frederickson, had this book at his house that said, racing is not -- you don't succeed by being the guy that does everything perfect; you succeed by being the guy that minimizes mistakes. Everyone is going to make mistakes and they are very difficult to get over.
Today I think both of us were fortunate. We finished up front didn't cost ourselves a ton of points but we are race car drivers and we are going to think about what we did wrong and try not to do it again.
Seems like as soon as you have everything figured out you start forgetting things that you knew a long time ago and start making mistakes over again. It's very difficult.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Definitely, giving up a win by not getting a good restart; I'll think about it tonight. And certainly disappointed in the fact that I didn't take advantage of the opportunity I had up front.
But finishing second, big picture wise, we'll take it. It's not the end of the world, but the mistake's on me.
Q. The way you were dominating the first half of the race, without that mistake, you win this thing going away? Is that how you'll remember this tonight or tomorrow when you go shooting?
CARL EDWARDS: Yeah, it's really easy to say, if we would not have made that mistake we would have won. I definitely took myself out of position to fight for the win by doing that. So that's something that painful, and I'm going to think about it. I'm going to think about it all the way home. I'm going to lay in bed. My wife's going to yell at me and tell me to get over it. That's just how it goes. That's how racing is.
But to me, the neatest part was that Bob and my guys made sure that they told me that they were behind me and they weren't -- they were excited to go to Kansas. That really felt good. But you do feel kind of like you're on an island sometimes when you make those kind of mistakes. You feel like, man, I have all of these people behind me, all of these folks working so hard and that's a tough thing to swallow but that's part of the sport.
CARL EDWARDS: That's the first time I've been caught speeding on pit road all year? Well, I've done it like 15 times in the Nationwide Series. That's a tough one.
Q. Did you say that maybe you had something on one of your tires on that restart? And also, can were you concerned at all just restarting against Kurt Busch and knowing if you had contact, then, oh my gosh, this could lead to other stuff?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, it didn't cross my mind at all. It was just another guy to race, another car to worry about fighting for the win with. I didn't think twice about Kurt being out there.
We raced hard and clean and did what we both needed to on the track, so that's a good thing. Coming around to get the green, there's a lot of rubber chunks laying around and I picked up a piece of rubber and I could feel it on the tire kind of thumping as I was coming around. It could have been on the rear. I think it might have, but I didn't want to climb out of the race car saying, I had stuff on my tires and that's what messed it up. I should have done a better job of cleaning my tires and worked harder to get it off. Whatever it is, it's still on me.
But I did feel like I had a little pick-up there right before I went to the gas are for the start itself.
Q. How glad are you guys that it wasn't a mileage race today?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Very glad. Very happy that it wasn't. Racing, worrying about that stuff, it has not been our strong suit but it's an area we are working hard to get better in and happy to know it didn't come down to that.
CARL EDWARDS: We get pretty good fuel mileage with our Ford and we work on it hard. So to me fuel mileage races I kind of look at as an opportunity. But I'm sure as soon as I say that, I'll get bit by one and it will get me.
I was glad we raced to the finish today. I thought that was a lot of fun.
Posted on: September 30, 2011 11:55 am
By Pete Pistone
Last week's sometimes testy radio communication between Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus drew perhaps more attention than the five time champion's 18th place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
But Johnson said there are no problems with the chemistry between the two or inside the Hendrick Motorsports team despite the harsh words exchanged last week in Loudon.
“No, nothing off of this," Johnson said in his media session Friday morning at Dover International Speedway. "After 10 years of working together, there are plenty of things that we know about each other and a lot of discussions that have taken place. There hasn’t been anything more than normal. I mean, when you work with someone as long as we have, for over 10 years now, there are hot spots and buttons that can be pushed that send someone over the edge. We know what took place last weekend and he knows at times I can be frustrated with his cheerleading. That is what I said on the radio. So, it’s nothing new to us."
Johnson understands that the exchange has been perceived as a sign of internal strife with the 48 team in the opening of their challenge for a sixth straight championship. But Johnson reiterated it is business as usual in his camp.
"I know a lot of people are reacting to it and think that it is something abnormal," he said. "There’s a lot of other instances throughout the last 10 years where stuff like this has gone on and during our review of races and review of things and how to be a better group-a better team; we talk about this stuff all the time. So, yes it wasn’t our finest moment on Sunday, but, it is what we deal with. It’s been part of what we’ve been dealing with for 10 years.”
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Posted on: September 29, 2011 11:13 am
Finally knocked out of the top spot of the Chase for the 2011 Sprint Cup, Jimmie Johnson is the topic of discussion for an Inside NASCAR web-extra.
Posted on: September 24, 2011 12:10 pm
Edited on: September 24, 2011 12:13 pm
Posted by Pete Pistone
Jimmie Johnson led the way in Saturday's first practice session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Sprint Cup Series teams will get one more chance to dial in their cars later today as final practice for Sunday's Sylvania 300.
Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon were the fast five in Saturday's opening practice.
SYLVANIA 300 PRACTICE TWO
Posted on: September 16, 2011 4:57 pm
Edited on: September 16, 2011 4:57 pm
Posted by Brian De Los Santos
Can "Five-time" make it "Six-time"? Jimmie Johnson knows his championship streak won't last forever, but doesn't see any reason he can't win a sixth straight title.
Still, he's not an overwhelming favorite. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have the most wins this season. Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski are the series' hottest drivers.
Johnson feels he has to make a statement that he's still king of the mountain.
Friday at Chicagoland, Johnson spoke of his mindset entering the Chase as well as where his feud with Kurt Busch stands.
Press conference transcript:
EVERY YEAR THIS TIME WE TALK ABOUT SO AND SO IS GOING TO BEAT THE GUY TO BEAT JIMMIE THIS YEAR, WHY IS IT THAT EVERY YEAR YOU SEEM TO BE OVER LOOKED DESPITE YOUR PRETTY PROVEN TRACK RECORD:
“I think at this point it is safe to say it’s not going to last forever, we have gone so far into these championships, and it is just going to end at some point. Rightfully so, some guys who have shown a lot of speed over the years and we all look at the markers leading up to the chase and who is going to be competitive. In years past Kyle (Busch) was on a tear, Jeff (Gordon) is showing a lot of strength right now, so some of it is fair. From my experience when you get into the Chase, it is its own season. When you start over and the points spread is as close as it is from first to 12th everybody has a shot again. Our guys have always done well with the pressure.”
DOES CHAD FEEL THE SAME WAY THAT HIS TIME WILL EVENTUALLY RUN OUT?
“Well, Chad (Knaus, Crew Chief No. 48), in his mindset it may seem extremely confident at times but he is more focused on the reality of what could happen and wants to see. Technically, you could win every race in the course of the season. Is it possible? No. I say no, he says yes, it is possible. He just looks at things a little bit differently, and with the championship coming on, when you look at the facts within our race team and how we have been running, how we have entered this Chase versus other Chases. We are just as strong as we have been for the last five years. That is what he looks at, and he needs too. He needs to build our team around that. I do not want to sound in a way that I am not.
DO YOU THINK THAT PLAYED INTO YOUR FAVOR OR INTO YOUR HANDS THE FACT THAT EVERY SEASON YOU HAVE COME IN AND YOU ARE NOT NECESSARILY THE ONE THAT ALL THE TEAMS ARE LOOKING AT?
“I want to be that guy. I wanted to lead the points coming into the post season, we worked hard to put ourselves into a position for that and with what went on at Richmond (International Raceway) it did not happen. I want that target on my back and on my team at all times. There is an advantage you can gain by dominating and setting the mark and having everybody chase you. That is good momentum. I wish that we had that on our side. We don’t right now. We are running well, we are running in the top five, but we have got to go out in the Chase and set a statement and get back to our ways and do what we can.”
ARE YOU CONFIDENT THAT THE WHOLE SITUATION WITH KURT BUSCH IS BEHIND YOU ENTERING THE CHASE?
“I am. The discussion we had following Richmond, that is the first we have had a discussion like that. I do feel it is behind and I am entering this Chase and the next 10 races, and really, forever on the race track, that it is behind us. I certainly hope that it is.”
Posted on: September 14, 2011 3:41 pm
Edited on: September 14, 2011 5:39 pm
Should Jimmie Johnson start making room for a sixth championship trophy? (US Presswire)
CBSSports.com NASCAR reporter Pete Pistone and NASCAR producer Brian De Los Santos take their best guess as to how the final Chase standings will shake out.
This year's 12-driver field accounted for 21 wins in the season's first 26 races and includes five former series champions.
Jimmie Johnson is set to take aim at an unprecedented sixth straight championship, but in a season that has produced as much unpredictability as this one has, the Hendrick Motorsports driver could be ripe for finally being unseated. Johnson only has one win to his credit entering the playoff run, the fewest of any of his previous seven Chase appearances, providing some of his competitors with a glimmer of hope the dominance may be fading.
It starts at Chicagoland Speedway and wraps up with Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, so let the Chase begin:
1. Jimmie Johnson: It's good to be the king, and for anyone else to ascend to the throne they have to rise up and take the crown. There hasn't been a driver able to do that in the last five seasons and it won't happen this year either. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus know how to play the Chase game better than anyone. They put together a solid if not dominating regular season that may have been down on victories from previous years, but was not short on the key factor in winning NASCAR titles -- consistency. His feud with Kurt Busch may make this one a little more interesting, but at the end of the 10-week Chase, the story will be a six-pack for Johnson.
2. Jeff Gordon: The resurgence of Gordon this season has been one of the year's pleasant surprises. While great attention was given to team owner Rick Hendrick's decision to pair Steve Letarte with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the organization's massive realignment at the end of last season, Gordon and new head wrench Alan Gustafson have been remarkable. After winning the second race of the year at Phoenix, Gordon did cool off during the middle stretch of the schedule. After dropping as far back as 17th in the standings, he roared back and may have the most momentum of any driver heading into the Chase.
3. Kevin Harvick: He came down to the wire last season and just short of ending Johnson's title run. So Harvick feels there's some unfinished business to take care of in 2011. He was very strong in the opening segment of the season, rattling off three wins in short order by pouncing on late opportunities. But there were some stumbles in the regular season and Harvick endured a summer of some discontent especially with his pit crew's performance. Things seem to have been righted and the No. 29 team is a cohesive bunch once again. RCR having only one car in the Chase may also prove to be beneficial to Harvick's effort with the organizations complete resources at his disposal.
4. Kyle Busch: The No. 1 seed in the Chase by virtue of his four wins and place in the point standings, Busch has his best shot ever to win a Sprint Cup championship. His biggest hurdle will again be himself and overcoming the emotion that still gets the best of him at times. However, while there have been outbursts in his Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series efforts, Busch has been relatively quiet in that department on the Cup side. The nagging issues of Joe Gibbs Racing's engine department are another challenge Busch will need to conquer, but there's no reason to believe he won't be right in the thick of the championship hunt.
5. Carl Edwards: The preseason pick by many (including me) to win the title, Edwards has had a strange year that was overshadowed by his contract situation with Roush Fenway Racing and his future career plans. Now that he has settled into a long-term deal at RFR, Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne have no outside distractions and obstacles to get in the way of a full assault on the crown. Edwards has been very good in the weeks leading up to the Chase including a solid second-place outing at the regular-season finale in Richmond and will look to ride that momentum to a hot start in the playoffs.
6. Matt Kenseth: The quintessential sleeper is back in the Chase and has put together a typically consistent year to punch his ticket to the playoffs. Kenseth's 14 top-10 finishes, seven top 5's and two victories were one of his strongest regular-season performances in recent years. He'll have to get past a few tracks inside the Chase -- such as Martinsville -- that have been challenges during his Cup career to make a serious charge for a second title.
7. Kurt Busch: Busch was the only driver to stay inside the top 10 of the point standings all through the regular season. But the bad news is he fell from the lead to eighth place after enduring a summer stretch filled with struggles, bad luck and high emotion that helped rekindle a feud with Jimmie Johnson. Busch ended the regular campaign with a pair of good runs in Atlanta and Richmond but the question of his ability to keep emotions in check while also dealing with the Johnson rivalry put the Penske Racing driver's championship hopes seriously in doubt.
8. Brad Keselowski: The other Penske driver comes into his first Chase as a bona fide underdog but one many feel can pull off the impossible and make a serious challenge for the title. Keselowski's performance since early June has been nothing short of spectacular and there may not be another team in the garage area that has as much confidence or believes in its driver more than the Blue Deuce bunch. Keselowski won over a lot of fans in the last three months and is looking to prove a lot of his previous detractors wrong.
9. Tony Stewart: Not the season Stewart had hoped for by any means, but the two-time champion was still good enough when it counted to make it back to the Chase. Things appeared to be headed back in the right direction as the regular season came to a close, but Stewart's team doesn't have the look of a championship contender and won't be a serious challenger unless it can eliminate the roller coaster ride results that have dominated the 2011 season.
10. Denny Hamlin: He pushed Johnson to the brink of the championship last season but has suffered through a disappointing follow-up season punctuated by engine problems and other issues that forced Hamlin to use a wild card spot to make it back to the Chase. The switch to TRD engines should be a plus for Hamlin, but a return to the form he displayed last year-- a combo platter of consistency and winning -- in short order is imperative for the JGR No. 11 team to have any shot at somehow challenging for the title.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Earnhardt's somewhat surprising start to the year began to fade away as the season wore on and by the end of the regular campaign he was barely hanging on to a spot in the Chase. He made it after a very nervous night in Richmond and perhaps the fresh start will be what the Hendrick Motorsports driver needs. Crew chief Steve Letarte promised to change his conservative approach of just trying to make the Chase to a winning formula once the playoffs began so it will be interesting to see if there is any difference in the team's strategy over the next 10 races. Of any one of the dozen Chasers, Earnhardt needs to get off to a good start and not dig himself into a hole.
12. Ryan Newman: The other half of the Stewart-Haas Racing duo made the Chase for the fourth time in his career and put together a nice and consistent regular season. However despite his one win and 13 top 10 finishes, Newman had only a pair of consecutive top fives in the season's first 26 races. He's not particularly strong on 1.5-mile tracks, and with the likes of Chicagoland, Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead on the Chase schedule, it doesn't bode well for the driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet.
What GOOD reason is there to pick against him? If you're counting on the law of averages, that law clearly doesn't apply to the 48 team.
Except for Chicagoland, the Chase tracks are the same as they ever were. The same tracks he has shown time and time again the ability to dominate. And, quite frankly, he's not too shabby at Chicagoland, with seven top 10s in nine visits.
It's inevitable that he's going to fall short one of these years (isn't it?). He's not going to win titles until the day he retires (will he?). It's just not possible (is it?). But with five straight titles and another strong regular season in the books, I don't see how I can predict that Johnson's rein is over.
1. Jimmie Johnson: What indication has the 48 team given that they won't be competitive during the Chase? Sure he has just one win, but he did finish second in the final regular-season points. As we've learned over the past five years, Johnson and the 48 team are built for the Chase. The only thing I could see spoiling the party is if Kurt Busch makes it his purpose to keep Johnson from capturing a sixth straight title by any means necessary. However, Busch did say they've worked it out and will cool the antics during the Chase. I'm not quite buying it.
2. Jeff Gordon: In terms of wins, he's already having his best season since winning six times in 2007. The 24 team appears to be on top of their game heading into the Chase, with three consecutive top fives and six finishes of sixth or better in the past seven races.
3. Carl Edwards: He looks primed for a run at the title. With 10 races to go, he already has third most top fives (12) for a season in his career. He takes three straight top 10s and two consecutive top fives into the Chase.
4. Matt Kenseth: It's so easy to undervalue Kenseth. You'd hardly know that he won twice and finished sixth in the final regular-season standings. He's not flashy. He doesn't have a personality that screams for attention. His strength is consistency. The two tracks he won at were Dover and Texas, both of which will be revisited down the stretch.
5. Brad Keselowski: He has come a long way. He was 25th in the standings at the end of May, and over the course of the second half of the season he staged a furious rally, just missing out on finishing the regular season in the top 10. He was especially hot over the past two months, pulling out two wins, four top fives and six top 10s the past seven races. I don't think it was a fluke and expect him to remain competitive throughout the final 10 races.
6. Kyle Busch: This isn't the first time Busch has been a regular-season wonder boy, but for all his talent, he's never been able to carry it out through the Chase, with his best points finish (5th) coming in 2007. This very well could be the year he puts it together, but I just have this feeling that at the first sign of trouble the downward spiral will begin.
7. Kevin Harvick: I don't know what to make of Harvick. He's tied for the season lead with four wins, including a dominant effort in the regular-season finale at Richmond, but his 13 top 10s ranks seventh. For much of the summer the 29 car was a non-factor. In fact, Richmond was the first race he had even led a lap in since Daytona at the beginning of July, a span of nine races. The win was one of only two top five finishes Harvick had in the last 13 races.
8. Kurt Busch: It has been a wildly inconsistent season for the No. 2 team and Busch has flown off the handle a number of times. Like his brother Kyle, the question is whether he can keep his cool in times of distress. He has run well the past couple of weeks with back-to-back top fives, but that comes off the heels of three straight finish of 17th or worse.
9. Ryan Newman: Did you know Newman has the fifth-most top fives (8) this season? That's more than Harvick, Kenseth or Kurt Busch. He's also one of only two Chase drivers -- Edwards is the other -- without a DNF. Still, his avg. finish of 13.1 is just eighth best.
10. Tony Stewart: I thought this season might be somewhat of a struggle for the 14 team, and despite the Chase berth, it has been. He's without a win and has just three top fives (his career low is nine) and 11 top 10s (his career low is 16). If there's any good news, it's that he does have three top 10s in the past four races. Maybe the team is putting things together at the right time.
11. Denny Hamlin: Prior to the season, if there was one driver people thought might unseat Johnson as champion this season, it was Hamlin. But he hasn't come close to living up to expectations, needing a wild-card to make the Chase. There's been signs of life in recent weeks with three consecutive top 10s for the first time this season.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He hung on to a Chase berth by the skin of his teeth. The first half of the season saw Earnhardt in position to challenge for the points lead with seven top 10 finishes. But over the past 13 races he has managed just two top 10s. Maybe the team was just trying to play it safe to ensure a Chase berth, but even if they were holding back a bit, I don't see him as a championship contender.
Posted on: September 13, 2011 11:15 am
Posted by Pete Pistone
Jimmie Johnson returns to Chicagoland Speedway this weekend to kick off the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. The 1.5-mile track was the site of his first NASCAR win back in 2001 when he was victorious in the then Busch Series: