Halfway through NASCAR’s ten-race Chase for the Cup play-off with just five of a whopping 36 races to go and it looks like it’s going to be difficult for anyone to deflect Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Racing Chevrolet team from winning their third Sprint Cup championship in a row. If he pulls it off, the 33-year old Johnson will become the first man to win three consecutive NASCAR titles since Cale Yarborough turned the trick thirty years ago.
For most of this season Johnson was overshadowed by Kyle Busch who won race after race in each of NASCAR’s Cup, Nationwide and Truck divisions and established himself as the man to beat in one of Joe Gibbs Racing’s trio of Toyotas. But Busch, 23, stumbled badly in the opening three races of the Chase for the Cup, suffering mechanical problems in each race which dropped him to the tail of the twelve drivers who qualified for the championship play-off.
Meanwhile, Johnson finished second and fifth in the first two Chase races. Johnson then won in Kansas at the end of September, survived the traditional Talladega crash-fest the following week and faded to sixth at Charlotte last Saturday night after battling for the lead. More than in any other series, consistency is what it’s all about in NASCAR because every driver all the way down the field earns points and plenty of them, too.
With five races to go Johnson has amassed 5,878 points and leads the championship by 69 points from Charlotte winner Jeff Burton. The 41-year old Burton has raced Cup cars for fifteen years, the last four with Richard Childress’s three-car Chevrolet team. Burton has never won the championship. His best year was 2000 when he finished third while driving one of Jack Roush’s Fords. This year, Burton has been a model of consistency winning only once prior to his thoroughly deserved victory in last Saturday night’s 500-mile race at Charlotte. Burton is one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers and if he could eke-out the necessary points to beat Johnson to the championship he would be widely applauded.
Also in with a chance to beat Johnson is Greg Biffle who won the first two Chase races last month at New Hampshire and Dover. Biffle, 38, drives one of five Roush Fenway Fords and after Charlotte he’s third in points, 86 behind leader Johnson. Biffle came to Cup racing late in his career and has driven for Roush the past six years, finishing second in the ‘05 championship.
Biffle’s team-mate Carl Edwards looked like a serious title threat until he triggered a huge multi-car shunt at Talladega then lost sixteen laps at Charlotte changing an ignition box. Edwards is currently fourth in points, 168 behind Johnson.
With 185 points for a win and 70 for finishing 31st, almost anything can happen. But it’s unlikely that either of fifth or sixth-placed Clint Bowyer or Kevin Harvick (Burton’s team-mates at Richard Childress) or former champions Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, who currently are seventh and eighth, will be able to muster any challenges for Johnson.
Mid-season phenomenon Kyle Busch finished fourth at Charlotte but he’s now 326 points behind in ninth place. Tenth in points at this stage is Dale Earnhardt Jr. who’s had a torrid time recently. Earnhardt was eliminated in a multi-car wreck at Talladega, and then blew a right front tyre at Charlotte. After repairs he returned to the track to finish 36th, forty-five laps behind, gathering as many of those precious points as possible.
NASCAR’s championship epic continues next weekend on the half-mile Martinsville bullring in Virginia followed on October 26 by the high-speed Atlanta Motor Speedway. The season concludes with successive races in November on the Texas Motor Speedway, Phoenix Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway