If there is absolute truth in racing, it is that nothing is as it seems. After all, it seems as though, right on schedule, five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is finding his stride. After 24 races, Johnson is tied for the points lead and has put up better numbers than he has since 2006. It seems like Johnson, with his stellar record at nearly every track he’ll see in the Chase, would be the odds-on favorite to win his sixth title in a row.
But nothing is as it seems.
Despite Johnson’s numbers (one win, 10 top-5 finishes, a series-best 16 top 10’s), it’s much harder to peg him as the favorite heading into the Chase. In fact, it’s hard to define a favorite at all; a streaking Brad Keselowski had an inconsistent first half of the season, Kyle Busch has a series-leading five wins and the reputation of falling apart in the Chase, Carl Edwards is slumping and Jeff Gordon just needs the barest _something_ to grab a title. Again, it seems like Johnson, who has five top 5’s and six top 10’s in the last seven races, should have an advantage as he’s coming on strong just when he needs to.
But again, nothing is as it seems.
Johnson’s experience in the Chase format should make him a frontrunner. Yet that same experience that could be such an advantage to Johnson and his No. 48 team could also be their Achilles heel in 2011. Despite those recent numbers, Johnson hasn’t won since Talladega in April. It’s the first time in Johnson’s career that he hasn’t had at least a pair of wins through 24 races. Not only that, but he hasn’t really looked like he’s had a car capable of winning since that race in the spring.
Johnson said on Saturday that his team’s formula for success in the Chase comes from their preparation. Johnson as a driver is incredibly focused. “You can’t let the lows drag you too far down and you can’t let the highs take you too far up. There is some balance you need to maintain.” That’s not in question, and it may be Johnson’s biggest advantage, the real reason behind his five titles.
But Johnson said something else on Saturday that could spell something different entirely. “I can’t say that in the five championships that we’ve won that we were really searching throughout the Chase to find new speed or anything. We knew going into the Chase that what we had was what we had.”
Uh-oh. This year, Johnson and Company will need to find speed during the Chase in order to contend. No longer ahead of the competition in the speed department, the No. 48 fleet simply isn’t fast enough. Despite leading 18 laps, at the end, the car simply didn’t have the speed to win. It’s not that Johnson doesn’t match race winner Kyle Busch in talent, or that he couldn’t outdrive Busch to the checkers. It was simply because the car wasn’t fast enough that Johnson had to settle for second place. The car wasn’t quite fast enough last week at Bristol, or at Pocono or Loudon, all tracks where Johnson has won in the past.
If the No. 48 team showed its true hand in Michigan, then they will need to enter the Chase with an unfamiliar mindset. They will have to tinker a little more, make adjustments a little more radical, take a few more chances on the racetrack and in the pits. Doing that during a race is walking the razor’s edge. On one hand, it can make you faster, better, a winner. Or, just as quickly it can make you slower, worse, or hauled off on a wrecker. It’s easy to understand why coming into the Chase confident in what he had is such a vital part of Johnson’s five titles, and equally easy to see why he doesn’t want to change that.
On the other hand, if the team hasn’t been quite willing to tip all their cards to the competition just yet then they will roar into the Chase as they always have and Johnson will take it from there and drive it all the way to the stage at Homestead. But it doesn’t really feel that way this year; there doesn’t seem to be that spark.
Of course it would be foolhardy indeed to either hand out the trophy or write anyone off before the Chase even starts. So much can change and so fast in the sport that the favorite today could be an also-ran tomorrow. It seems as though Jimmie Johnson is in the catbird seat-again-probably to the chagrin of many fans who would like nothing better than to see someone else-anyone else-win the Cup. But in NASCAR, nothing is as it seems. Despite the best year he’s had in the last five, Johnson heads to the Chase in unfamiliar territory, needing to find speed. He’s no underdog, but he’s not the overwhelming favorite, either. And that’s the difference Johnson will have to contend with to hoist number six in twelve weeks.
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