Four-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson did not win in the desert Saturday night in Phoenix, but the No. 48 seemed poised to do so for much of the race. Johnson hung in the top 10 in the early laps, then dominated the Subway Fresh Fit 600’s middle portion before relinquishing the lead to Kyle Busch. Running second at the time of the final caution, both Busch and Johnson pitted for four tires during that yellow in a tragic mistake. The pit strategy move dropped them from the front row to seventh and eighth for the green-white-checkered restart, as several other drivers took on two. But while Busch lagged behind in traffic (he wound up eighth) it was Johnson who muscled his way three-wide up through the field on the last restart to finish third, expanding his point lead in the process.
It’s that type of race, even though he didn’t win, that leaves competitors of the four-time champ a little deflated. After he slumped to a ninth place finish and failed to lead a lap two weeks ago at Martinsville, there was some reason to believe that Phoenix would have been another race that a title hopeful could make a statement, claim they were ready to go toe-to-toe with the No. 48 team this fall.
Johnson’s biggest challenger and most outspoken foe this season is Kurt Busch. While Busch has led 144 more laps with 460 to Johnson’s 314 this season, he apparently is void of a horseshoe where the sun don’t shine. Busch has taken hits in the points after getting caught up in crashes not of his doing at both Daytona and Las Vegas. He also has been very outspoken about beating Johnson specifically, a fire likely fueled not just by the No. 48’s recent dominance but also by the memory of being wrecked at the hands of Johnson a couple of times last season. As a result, Busch has seemed to be the likeliest Johnson-challenger in terms of potential performance. But he now sits 14th in points, and may have to worry about simply making the playoffs. It’s Busch’s inconsistency that remains a problem as of late; for example, he took himself out of contention early at Phoenix by spinning his No. 2 and collecting nose damage. Trying too hard to get to the front too early is a common problem, one that often spells doom for his championship chances.
Before the onset of 2010, Denny Hamlin’s sizzling end to 2009 led many to believe he could unseat Johnson. Now? Don’t count on it. Not only has the No. 11 team under-performed, but Hamlin is ailing from ACL surgery. By the time the pain in his knee, and the media swarm around it, settles, Hamlin may find himself more concerned with securing a Chase spot. Just like with the No. 2 car, crew chief Mike Ford will have to focus on the present and not on the setup of future races in the Chase. Hamlin sits 18th in points, with just one top 10 (his win at Martinsville) on his resume.
Matt Kenseth and the No. 17 Crown Royal team have rebounded nicely from an utterly disappointing 2009, as the 2003 Cup champion sits second in points, just 36 markers behind Johnson. In fact, Kenseth has been extremely consistent this year, clocking six top 10s in seven races (he would be seven-for-seven had Gordon not punted him out of the way in the closing laps at Martinsville). The No. 17 team has been known for walking softly and carrying a big stick over the years… but that quiet prowl may not be enough defense for the dominating stride the No. 48 gallops with almost every week. Teammate Greg Biffle has been almost equally consistent, but the No. 16 has not seen a nose out front enough to be considered a serious threat.
Kenseth rival and Johnson teammate Jeff Gordon have been one of the few competitors giving the Lowe’s team a run for their money consistently over their successful run of championships. Gordon and Johnson staged an epic battle for the title during the Chase in 2007, and Gordon was one of the few that stayed within shouting distance of him last season. This year, the No. 24 has been fairly strong, but at 38, the veteran seems to have lost his edge. Caught up in a head-to-head battle with Kenseth at Martinsville, the pair took each other out of contention for the win in the last lap of that race. Saturday, Gordon made another driving error, spinning his tires on the final restart and allowed Ryan Newman to take the lead and the win.
Richard Childress Racing drivers Kevin Harvick (fourth) and Clint Bowyer (sixth) sit comfortably near the top of the points, but both combined have led more than 100 laps less than Johnson. Top 10s and top fives are not enough to topple a No. 48 team that has averaged almost six wins per year since 2002. And 2002 and 2005 champ Tony Stewart caught fire in the newly minted No. 14 after his All-Star win last May, leading the points through the summer up until the start of the Chase. But Stewart has gone winless since Kansas last October and has struggled badly in several races this year, proving that he and crew chief Darian Grubb have a lot to figure out if they want to notch the first championship for Stewart-Haas Racing.
So the message through the first two months of the season is clear: Johnson has a firm grip at the top of the Sprint Cup world. Now that you are thoroughly depressed by the seeming certainty that the 2010 season holds, think back to what 2009 looked like after seven races. Gordon, fresh off breaking his year-long winless drought, led Johnson by 162 points and had six top 10s. Johnson even trailed Gordon and Stewart in the traditional standings up until the Chase started, only upping his game to another level when the points counted the most.
No team yet has shown the strength needed to defeat Johnson, so the greatest suspense this year lies in who will emerge. Will one of the aforementioned drivers (or Mark Martin and Carl Edwards – the runner-up points finishers the last two years) reel off back-to-back wins just as Johnson’s horseshoe dislodges? Will Chad Knaus’s late pit calls finally stop working in Johnson’s favor? This is possible. But the safest bet the way things are going right now is that Johnson will beat the once-dominant Gordon in the “one for the thumb” championship campaign – and there’s no reason to think it won’t happen this year.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.