Potential postseason berth would come in Stewart's absence
Related: Sprint Cup Series standings
Already boasting one of the most impressive resumes in NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson hasn't stopped adding new feats to his legacy.
He's led 1,000 laps in eight of his 12 full seasons; this year, he's already led 1,136 through 21 races. He's broken track records at Martinsville Speedway and Pocono Raceway in 2013, then broke his own record in the series’ second trip to Pennsylvania.
A staple in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, he hasn't missed the sport's playoffs since he began driving in the series full time. This weekend at Watkins Glen International, he has the opportunity to clinch a spot in the Chase.
But if Johnson -- who has sat atop the points standings all but two weeks this season -- does clinch, it won't be the celebration he would've hoped for. Tony Stewart, 11th in the standings and the first driver in a Wild Card position, handed over the wheel of his No. 14 Chevrolet to Max Papis after breaking his leg in two places Monday in a sprint car race. Without Stewart, the competition seems incomplete.
“From the way I understand it leaving Pocono, Tony's in that position for us to clinch,” the five-time champion said. “(That's) not the way I want to clinch, by any means, with him not being here at the race track.”
It's looking more and more likely that Johnson will earn his spot in the Chase long before Stewart returns to the track. The standings leader currently has a 178-point lead on 11th-place Stewart. In order to clinch a Chase spot at Watkins Glen -- a place where he’s never won -- Johnson needs to leave the track with a 193-point edge over the 11th-place driver.
"In the Cup car, I've been competitive,” Johnson said. “I think I've been a top-three, top-five car, and if you run long enough in the top three, top five, you have chances to win. But I just haven't been that race-winning car. Maybe the car's been, I just haven't been the race-winning driver yet here."
This year, it will be hard to question the car. He's got four wins, nine top-fives and 14 top-10s in 21 races, with an average finish of 8.7. His average starting position of 11.5 and three Coors Light Poles show the speed of the No. 48 Chevrolet.
If Johnson hasn’t been a race-winning driver at The Glen, he certainly has come close. He has one pole at the track, and hasn’t started outside the top 10 since 2003. His best finish is third, with four top-fives and six top-10s in 11 races. If he can improve on his third-place showing last year, he has a good chance of the first Chase clinch at Watkins Glen under the new postseason system.
The only other driver to earn a guaranteed spot this early in the season is Jeff Gordon, who made his way into the Chase in 2007 at Watkins Glen with a ninth-place finish. However, when Gordon clinched, the Chase field was reserved for the top 12 in the standings, meaning he only needed to hold off the 13th-place driver.
Gordon also has a stronger record at the road course, with four wins at the track, six top-fives and nine top-10s in 20 starts. But Johnson may have a greater motivation behind him. Earlier this year, he discussed his hope to be locked into the Chase before the birth of his second child.
“My selfish motivation for (having a big points lead), if Chani goes into labor early, I don't have to worry about Richmond, honestly," Johnson said following his victory at June's race at Pocono. "That is what I'm working so hard for. I always work hard anyway, but it sure takes some pressure off if we lock early and don't have to worry about Richmond.”
With another win and four top-10s in seven races since then, the hard work hasn’t stopped, even as the difficulty other teams will have catching him has grown.
“In my mind, I feel like our four wins has us locked in anyway,” Johnson said. “I've had great comfort of ease feeling like I'm locked in. If I do lock in mathematically, that's great, but it's certainly not under the circumstances that I want it to happen."