Kevin Rutherford · Tuesday September 10, 2013
I know this Clint Bowyer/Michael Waltrip Racing/“The Spin” stuff is intriguing and you damn well should be paying attention, but let’s step away for just a moment to talk about another Chase-related oddity.
That’s the average finish of a fairly high-profile driver in the Sprint Cup Series over the last four races. Not just any driver, in fact, a five-time champion.
On Saturday at Richmond, Jimmie Johnson finished 40th after a battery issue forced him into the garage for a few laps. Before then, the Hendrick Motorsports wheelman was put a lap down early, caught speeding off pit road and started from the back of the pack after the birth of his second daughter prompted his absence from practice and qualifying the day before.
It was Johnson’s second 40th-place finish in four weeks, following an equally disappointing showing at Michigan last month with an engine failure. A wreck at Bristol the next week relegated him to 36th, while a 28th at Atlanta — four laps down — remains his best result of the stretch.
To be clear, this is Johnson’s first time finishing 25th or worse four straight weeks in his career. The man with the golden horseshoe saw his points lead concurrently plummet each week after entering Michigan with a 75-point advantage over Clint Bowyer.
In fact, if the Chase system wasn’t in effect following Richmond, Johnson wouldn’t even be in the lead anymore, with Carl Edwards taking No. 1 in the standings by one point.
Of course, the Chase is still a thing, which actually creates a silver lining for Johnson and Co. He’s still no longer the points leader entering Chicagoland, but he wasn’t going to be anyway without a win, as Matt Kenseth’s five wins trumped Johnson’s four. Instead, he’s tied for second in points, three behind Kenseth, and has a clean slate going into this weekend.
Or doesn’t he?
The points reset before the Chase is historically a nice equalizer for those who make it in, tightening up the standings so that even the driver who barely squeaks into the playoff has a legitimate shot at the title. What Johnson did in the first 26 races doesn’t exactly matter much, save for his four wins that put him tied for second in points with Kyle Busch.
The issue for Johnson is that problems like these don’t reset or fix themselves once the Chase begins. A downward spiral could potentially appear corrected with the tightening of a points race, but a Chase does not a rebound make.
In fact, things aren’t superb for Hendrick Motorsports in general right now. While the team did just put three of its four drivers into the Chase — with another barely missing out — its overall stats over the last four races aren’t encouraging. Overall, the team has scored just one top-five finish, earned by Kasey Kahne at Bristol. Add to that seven top 10s, though three of those came from the hard-charging Jeff Gordon, whose surge became too little, too late.
That’s certainly not looking like a championship caliber organization for any of its three teams in the Chase — not Johnson, Kahne, nor Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Johnson’s still the frontrunner at Hendrick for the title, especially given Junior’s lack of victories and Kahne’s inconsistency as of late that got him into the Chase by wild card standards only. Johnson’s only three points out of first, and turning around a rough streak at Chicagoland could easily put him back atop the standings and on his way to a sixth championship.
Past results at these tracks are encouraging, too; the five-time champ has a win at every remaining circuit on the schedule save for Chicagoland and Homestead. Plus, he’s proven to be a fantastic closer in years past, kicking into gear at just the right time more often than not, as though he can simply flip a switch come Chase time to churn out consistently great finishes week after week effortlessly.
But man, does something need to change — and fast. Johnson has already set a fairly undesirable personal record with his four straight subpar finishes. Extending that streak simply can’t happen, and the No. 48 team will need to get its act together if it wants to end this slide, even if that means being incredibly conservative at first.
At this point, even finishing 15th would be better than the precedent set these last few weeks.
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