Think new Chase will stop Johnson? Think again
February 05, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Strategy for 48 team will evolve
Change the rules so that any active driver with six or more championships has to compete not in a car, but in a camper van with a pair of bicycles strapped to the roof. Replace his air guns on pit road with the kind that shoot silly string. Switch out his racing helmet with one worn by a member of Daft Punk. Rather than hearing his crew chief and spotter over the radio, he gets three-and-a-half hours of non-stop Kenny G.
Maybe then, you'll stop Jimmie Johnson from winning championships, because the revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format introduced last week almost certainly won't.
Oh sure, that was the initial reaction -- in fact, even Johnson himself admitted to wondering if the overhauled playoff was somehow designed to curb his onslaught on the sport's record books. But the more he thought about it, the more the Hendrick Motorsports ace realized the revised Chase format might instead do something very different -- like play directly to his strengths.
"When I look at the years we've won championships, we've won a lot of races. We've won a lot of races in the Chase," Johnson said last week on the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour. "And the way this format plays out, we would have that opportunity come Homestead. So this could be something very good for us. If we can keep our stats like they've been, and the process we've used, it could be very good for us."
On this, Six-Time is spot-on. Given that this new elimination-style Chase demands excellence at a time of year when Johnson is traditionally at his best, it's far from outlandish to envision the driver of the No. 48 car using the revamped format as a springboard to a seventh championship.
Or an eighth.
Or a 10th.
No question, the championship at NASCAR's highest level will now be more difficult to win, and the consequences of a single cut tire or blown engine loom larger than ever before. The level of intensity in and around that final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be downright stratospheric. And yet, if you wanted to design a Chase that best fits Johnson, you could do much worse than to construct a format that ultimately reduces the title run to a one-race, four-driver shootout. If his past numbers are any indication of what's still to come, go ahead and pencil Johnson's name into one of those four spots for Homestead from now until the day he hangs up his helmet.
Indeed, anyone hoping the Chase revision is an attempt to "Jimmieproof" the Sprint Cup championship may be in for a disappointment, given that this new criteria for title contention only makes Johnson's superiority stand out in even starker relief. Besides, placing Johnson at a disadvantage was never NASCAR's intention anyway.
"I can say there is speculation, 'You do this because of Jimmie.' No, Jimmie performs. We fully expect Jimmie to dominate again," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's executive vice president for racing operations. "Jimmie has been a champion of NASCAR. You heard (chairman) Brian (France) say, 'You've got to beat the best of the best in the Chase.' If you look back at Jimmie's history, I think we'd be surprised if he wasn't there in Miami."
No question. Just look at what we're dealing with here -- a driver whose average points finish over 12 full-time seasons is a ridiculous 2.4. Regardless of the number of championships he's racked up, nobody does the first nine Chase races better. Nobody. His average points standing entering the finale is 2 -- and in the Chase era, that number drops to a preposterous 1.8. Let that number sink in for a bit. You're cutting this to a final four, and you have a driver whose average standing before the playoff finale is 1.8. You could limit the championship only to the top two each year in South Florida, and odds are you'd still have Johnson to contend with on an annual basis.
So no wonder upon further review Johnson feels like the revised format might indeed work to his benefit. The whole key to surviving and advancing in this new Chase are race victories, and nobody wins more in the playoff than the driver of the No. 48 car. Of his 60 victories in the Chase era, 31 of them have come on tracks that host Chase races, and 24 have come during the playoff itself. In the Challenger round there's Dover, where Johnson has won eight times. In the Contender round there's Charlotte, where he recorded his original six pack. In the Eliminator round, there are three tracks -- Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix -- where he's won 15 times combined. You really want to bet against Johnson making the final?
Wishful thinking. Indeed, we might be calling the guy "the Eliminator" after all is said and done. Yes, Homestead remains one of five tracks where Johnson has never won, and there are plenty of folks who love to pin hopes on that outlier. But let's not forget that the three times he absolutely had to deliver clutch runs there -- that first Chase in 2004, against Denny Hamlin in 2010, and against Matt Kenseth last season -- his average finish is 4.3. And in a revamped format where quality control is more crucial than ever, let's recall that the rear gear breakdown at Homestead in 2012 was Johnson's first mechanical failure in the Chase in eight years.
Now, with racing as with the stock market, past performances are not always an indication of future success. But Johnson has been at this so long, and maintained such an altitudinous degree of performance throughout a dozen seasons at NASCAR's premier level, that it's really difficult to believe this team is gong to slip off the radar tomorrow. If anything, change seems to revitalize and refocus the No. 48 bunch -- which won the championship after the Chase was expanded from 10 drivers to 12, and again after the Car of Tomorrow was phased in, and again after the Generation-6 vehicle was implemented.
Winning championship No. 7 this season, in the first year of this 16-driver Chase and first-to-the-line finale, would only be true to form. No question, anything can happen. As we witnessed in Phoenix two years ago -- and seen more than a few times since -- the setups in the No. 48 car can be awfully tough on tires. No one, not even Johnson, is immune to a lapped vehicle going sideways in front of him or dropping oil in his wake. With the title ultimately hinging on one race, small crises can quickly escalate into complete disasters, no matter how many championship trophies you have on the mantle.
But when you strip away all the worst-case scenarios, and take a realistic look at which driver is best suited to advance through the first three stages, only one name emerges. Had this new format been implemented in 2004, Johnson would have made every final round but one. All indications point to him continuing to make the final and continuing to pursue and win championships, barring an unforeseen schedule shakeup that loads the Chase with unfavorable tracks. That, or NASCAR makes him race the No. 48 camper van.