Wholly based on genuine observations and candid comments made by Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson leading up to Kyle Busch’s convincing win last Sunday at the Watkins Glen International road course, some in the news media and apparently Busch himself believe that his former Hendrick Motorsports teammates are engaging in some form of psychological warfare against him to distract him from his task at hand – winning the 2008 Sprint Cup championship.
However, it is doubtful that either four-time Cup champion Gordon or the current back-to-back defending champion Johnson, neither with degrees in psychology but with Masters in wheeling racecars, were up to anything more diabolical than analyzing theirs and others chances of wrangling the driver points lead away from the 23-year old Busch by Homestead in November.
Gordon observed that in his estimation Busch and his No. 18 Toyota team had not “…shown me what they were showing earlier in the season,” a seeming reference to Busch’s all-or-very-little performance over the last 10 races beginning at Dover. Over this span of two and a half months, the Las Vegas-native has won half of the Sprint Cup events, but in the remaining five has shown vulnerability, finishing outside the top 10 with 43rd, 13th, 25th, 15th and 36th-place results, respectfully.
Busch’s results give credence to Gordon’s belief that the wins can be minimized during the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and Busch’s otherwise inconsistent finishes give him and the other championship contenders reason to be optimistic.
Losing a championship during the 10-race playoff is something that Gordon, the win leader amongst active NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers, can speak of with a certain amount of credibility. Last season Gordon had a terrific season going and had amassed a 312-point lead after the 26th race of the season at Richmond, Va., only to see his regular season lead wiped out – and teammate Johnson leading him by 20 points when driver championship points were reset under the Chase format.
The end result of the 2007 season was that Johnson, who had finished the first 26 races of the season fourth in driver points and 410 behind the series leader and owner of his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, repeated as the Sprint Cup champion. As for Gordon, he faded following his impressive start to the season.
When Johnson agreed with Gordon’s assessment that Busch was far from being crowned NASCAR’s Sprint Cup champion for 2008, he also was only stating what he knows to be true. Johnson, winner of the last two Chase format championships knows that Busch can be beat – and beat by him in the all-important points column. The last 10-race span of good, consistent runs by Johnson has had to convince him that not only can Busch be overtaken… he is a guy that can do it.
Despite the five wins starting 10 races ago at Dover, an amazing 50% win ratio, Johnson has actually closed the points gap between he and the Joe Gibbs Racing phenom. Johnson, now third in the driver points standings, finds himself 244 points behind Busch and securely inside the top-12 Chase-eligible points positions. Following Busch’s Dover win, Johnson was 406 points behind the young points leader, a deficit that might have appeared insurmountable, but one that he has reduced by 162 points while Busch has been capturing the lions share of attention for his five wins since the first of June.
What Gordon and Johnson have stated when asked is nothing more than the truth. Busch, even if one were to believe that he could continue to win at his current prolific rate, is vulnerable and can be beat. It’s simply two guys, knowing a thing or two or four about winning championships, offering honest opinions.
They not only know about winning championships, but about Busch, as well. After having been teammates for three full seasons with the first-year driver for JGR at Hendrick Motorsports, both have had close-up and ample opportunity to size up their adversary. Clearly they have concluded that he is not invincible.
What the two past champions know is that the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship requires good consistent finishes week in and week out. Though going for wins is the object of the sport, an all-or-nothing approach will lead to poor finishes – something that no driver can withstand more than possibly two of during the 10-event finale to the season.
Additionally, Gordon and Johnson know their teams and what direction they are headed as the Chase approaches, inside knowledge that in itself may be cause for them to feel exceedingly hopeful about their own shots at overtaking Busch by season’s end. Certainly, no one can fault the two for their faith in the Hendrick organization, at least based on past performances.
Shortly after crossing the finish line in his convincing win last Sunday at Watkins Glen International, Busch exclaimed over the radio, apparently in response to his former teammates’ comments in their belief of his vulnerability, “They can keep trying to play these mind games. We’ll just keep winning.”
To be sure, a good plan to have. Certainly, 10 wins in the 10-race Chase will do the trick. But should Kyle Busch find that it isn’t possible to win them all, or even 50% of the races, he will still need a string of good finishes. Five wins and five mediocre to poor finishes might not only open the door to Gordon or Johnson ruining what has been up to now a dream season for Busch, but any one of the other nine Chase-eligible drivers.
And that’s my view from Turn 5.
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