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Menzer: Johnson a bigger title threat this time around

September 24, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Jimmie Johnson's average finish at Dover is 8.9, way ahead of Tony Stewart and the other Chase contenders. (Getty Images)

Five-time champion leads the standings and has learned from past mistakes

Well done, Denny Hamlin, well done.

Despite Hamlin's dominating victory in Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, despite the impressive way Hamlin overcame a qualifying mistake that forced him to start deep in the field, and despite the feel-good karma that has developed behind the dual comeback stories of Hamlin and his crew chief, Darian Grubb, there is one not-so-little issue with installing him as the favorite to win this Chase for the Sprint Cup at the moment.

The issue is the No. 48 team of driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. Johnson grabbed the Chase lead by virtue of his second consecutive runner-up finish.

What lies ahead

Johnson on remaining tracks
TrackWinsT5T10Avg. Fin.
Talladega25917.7
Charlotte6101411.8
Kansas25107.9
Martinsville614185.8
Texas18139.7
Phoenix412155.3
Homestead04713.5

You know the last time Johnson led the 10-race Chase after the first two events? It's happened only one other time, in 2005 when he won the then-second Chase race at Dover. He ended up stumbling later in that Chase, finishing fifth, but swore afterward that he had learned from whatever mistakes were made.

History shows that he did, making him far more dangerous with the points lead this time around.

Johnson was second in the points after two Chase events for three consecutive years beginning in 2008, and do you know what happened? He won the championship each of those years. He also won it in 2007, when he was fourth after two events but only four points off the lead held by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon. Johnson won his first championship in 2006 after being mired in eighth after the first two Chase races.

More numbers

As if those numbers weren't enough to nudge the mind toward making Johnson the odds-on favorite to win a sixth championship and disappoint the determined and admittedly more focused Hamlin once again, as he was in 2010, there are more.

Let's start with his track record at Dover International Speedway, where the Sprint Cup circuit stops next. Johnson has won there seven times and has an average finish of 8.9, while the best average finish of his next five closest pursuers in the Chase standings -- a group that includes Hamlin -- is 13.4. That figure belongs to defending Cup champion Tony Stewart.

"You know, when you get to the Chase, you need to execute on your great tracks and get the results you should there, and then on your tracks that aren't your best, you still have to have good days. ... I certainly look at the places that have been good tracks for us and want to capitalize," Johnson told reporters Sunday.

In short, Johnson said as he headed out of New Hampshire that he was very pleased to be "leaving the track that's been fair for me with an above-average finish and going to a track that I love next weekend."

The true test for sorting out the current championship contenders likely will come in two weeks at Talladega. If Johnson can survive that race -- seriously, survival might be all that is required -- he could end up running away with this thing.

"We have tracks that have been great to the 48 for a lot of years; tracks that we have been very successful at in the spring events," he said. "The one hanging out there that has me concerned is the same as everybody else, and that's Talladega. I haven't finished a [restrictor] plate race this year. You can look at it and say the odds are in my favor and that I'm bound to finish one of the four. I hope that happens. But outside of 'Dega and the unknown there, there are a lot of tracks for this 48 team that I'm very optimistic about."

Competition notices

"We have seen others make a run at them. But when they are in this kind of zone, they have not been beat."

--JEFF GORDON

Unlike the last time Hamlin found himself in this position -- or for new challengers such as the brash Brad Keselowski, who is only one point behind Johnson -- the best thing to do is ignore Johnson and the No. 48 team as much as possible. Arguably the biggest mistake Hamlin and then-crew chief Mike Ford did in losing the 2010 championship to Johnson wasn't so much getting outguessed on fuel in the next-to-last Chase race at Phoenix but talking too much smack about the 48 guys and wearing big cowboy hats a little too proudly after winning at Texas to secure the points lead with two to go.

It only energized Johnson and his group, throwing them into overdrive both in terms of their focus and determination, and allowing them to throw the smack talk back in the faces of their closest competitors.

This Chase is far from over, and just about anything still can happen. That's the beauty of it. But Gordon was correct in pointing out after Sunday's race that any teams counting on Johnson and his time-tested, championship-hardened No. 48 team to make mistakes that they can pounce on are the ones that will be left sadly mistaken.

"That whole group, it's just that everything clicks," said Gordon, who finished third in New Hampshire but sits a distant 12th in the standings because of a poor finish brought on by a hung throttle late in the Chase-opening race at Chicagoland. "They have had that from early on, and it took them a few years to win a championship. But I always knew, once they won one, watch out. That's how it's always been since they won their first championship. They just have so much confidence in what they are doing and the cars and the race tracks, and especially the 10 [tracks] in the Chase, that it's a combination that is really difficult to beat.

"And so, you know, after the [regular] season that they have and then these first two finishes [in the Chase], I think that just builds confidence and sends a message to the other competitors that you're definitely going to have to deal with this team for the championship. We have seen others make a run at them. But when they are in this kind of zone, they have not been beat."

As for Hamlin, Gordon added: "You know, I think what the 11 did was pretty big [Sunday]. But he's going to have to do that for eight more weeks."

In fact, he's going to have to be better than Johnson for the majority of the next eight weeks. As good as Hamlin looks right now, that's still a tall order.

And for now, that still makes Johnson the one for everyone else to beat in this Chase. That they now need to catch him only makes it more daunting.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.