After Saturday night’s race at Bristol it’s only two more to the Chase and since Kyle Busch is the points leader with four Sprint Cup Series wins and locked in, one would think that this will be the year the Johnson dynasty falls; but is it really that simple?
Last year it seemed Denny Hamlin, who won a league-best eight times last season, was going to be the one to end Johnson’s streak but ended up as the runner-up. Hamlin has only won once in 2011 and has not yet earned his place in this year’s Chase - is he hungry enough, and will his string of bad luck and bad races end so he can redeem himself?
Both Matt Kenseth with two wins and Carl Edwards with one win have cemented a top ten spot; Kevin Harvick with three wins, has clinched at least a wild card spot and will likely earn a top-ten berth in Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway barring any major mishaps. Any one of these drivers can certainly give Johnson a run for his money.
Then there’s Brad Keselowski – he’s on fire with three victories in 2011, two of those in the past four races (broken foot included). Is it possible he might just be the driver that closes the door on Johnson?
Currently Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ninth in the points but with no wins and lackluster finishes the past few races may be in jeopardy of not even making the Chase. But as they say, “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings”. In 2011, Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte have proven they are a competitive force with three top five and nine top ten finishes; are they playing it safe saving the “big guns” for later?
Then there’s Tony Stewart – with no wins and only two top five and nine top ten finishes this year, is right on the cusp. His finish at Bristol was disappointing and the team can’t seem to find the consistency needed to clinch their spot. Will Stewart-Haas Racing be able to put the pieces together to earn their place in the Chase? It’s tough to say with Keselowski, Bowyer, Hamlin and Allmendinger all within reach with two races to go.
But we’ve seen this before; Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and the 48 crew are what the NFL calls a “second half team”. In 2008, Johnson had seven wins - six wins after the halfway mark, three of those six wins in the Chase. In 2009, Johnson also had seven wins - five of those wins came after the halfway mark of the season, with four of those five wins also in the Chase. Things seemed to change in 2010, the year that Denny Hamlin came oh so close and yet so far – three of Johnson’s six season wins came in the first five races – and only a single win in the 2010 Chase, but the 48 crew still managed to walk away with the trophy. This year the guy who has won the past five Cup series championships, has one win so far this season, but with ten top five and sixteen top ten finishes has clinched his spot in the top ten.
So what does this all mean? Regardless of any other team’s performance, Johnson and Knaus are a well oiled machine; they spend the year fine tuning, honing their strategies and skills and know exactly what it takes to win - hence, we refer back to the original question – can any team cause the Johnson dynasty to fall, or will he win the 2011 Chase and become a 6-time champion?
Hard to say; when the Chase starts there will be twelve contenders and ten races - it really is any man’s game. But with a track record like Johnson’s my money’s on him; I think we’ll see history repeat itself – hard to tell, but it’s going to be one exciting ride.