Back up the truck. Turn off the lights. Get ready for next year.
After Jimmie Johnson won the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, the outcome of the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is all but over.
Oh, sure, there’s this little thing about the point leader after Kansas having won four of the seven Chase battles, and Johnson isn’t the points leader. But that’s a statistical oddity. A mere bag o’ shells, to put it another way.
There’s a reason the 48 team has won five in a row. They excel in the races that make up the Chase.
Johnson has now won two races this season, a far cry from the 10 he won back in 2007, and the other one besides Kansas was the crapshoot also known as Talladega.
That’s not Five-Time-style. There has been no domination this year, no butt-whipping run of races that just bludgeons any idea that other teams can compete against him and mastermind Chad Knaus.
Doesn’t seem to matter much, does it?
That he won at Kansas is no story. That he won by leading 197 of 272 laps? Old hat. The 48 in Victory Lane is old news, too. He’s won 20 of the 74 Chase races run since 2004, and that’s a stat right up there with the 56-game hitting streak and 714 home runs. No one else has won in double digits, in case you were wondering.
Each year that Johnson has won the title, there’s been a pivotal race, a turning point that led to the 48 being better over the final races. In my opinion, the Hollywood Casino 400 will be that race for 2011.
He not only beat the rest of the field, he beat them down. It was like the real Jimmie Johnson-Chad Knaus juggernaut had been kept under wraps for the first 30 races, only to be unleashed at Kansas when the need was greatest.
“We’ve been knocking on the door all year long,” Johnson said later. “We’ve gotten beat in some cases, and we’ve beat ourselves in others. We did our part, and we’ll just see if we can do it six more times.”
That’s just what the rest of the field wanted to hear, I’m sure. Faced with the prospect of a somewhat even playing field for the title over the first three races of the Chase, they might have thought the Five-Time Express had lost a step.
They thought wrong.
The field is shrinking too, at least of meaningful competition. Only eight of the original 12 Chasers have a legitimate chance to derail JJ and Chad.
Those out of the mix for this year are Denny Hamlin (-79, or two full races), Ryan Newman (-54), Jeff Gordon (-47) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-43).
Barring unforeseen difficulties, like natural disasters that prevent teams from reaching their home base, Charlotte, for next week’s event or a bad run of parts that infect only the 48 team’s engines, they are unlikely in the extreme to be able to battle at Homestead for the title.
Eighth-place Kyle Busch (-20) and seventh-place Tony Stewart (-19) are hanging around, as are Kurt Busch (-16) and Matt Kenseth (-12). Brad Keselowski, who was the hottest driver headed into the Chase, is fourth, 11 points out, and Johnson sits third, just four markers out of the lead and two off Kevin Harvick’s second-place total.
When you have fewer rivals and fewer races, plus all the momentum, it’s easy to see why JJ can see his name on a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup trophy.
If he keeps this up, he’s going to have to build an addition just to hold them all.
Johnson’s in the driver’s seat, no question, heading to Charlotte, which has always been his favorite track. He’s won there a bunch, and always runs well, even after Lowe’s relinquished the naming rights to the speedway.
It’s safe to put a finner down on Johnson to win, place or show at CMS, you might say, and there are 1.5-mile tracks like Texas on the schedule in the final six races. There are also tracks where luck is more important that performance, or at least as big a part in the outcome.
Those are Talladega and Martinsville, to name two.
Johnson is well aware of the role those tracks can play in whether or not he wins a sixth straight title. Luck is a factor; not the only factor.
“At Talladega if you get caught up in something, you can certainly say that’s bad luck,” he said. “If you get a flat tire for running something over on the track you can call it bad luck. But you’ve got to be careful when you blame things on just bad luck because you do create your own luck.
“That’s why we’re so focused on trying to qualify better because qualifying 19th you put yourself in a bad-luck area. So that’s where we try to be honest with ourselves in what is bad luck and what is just not performing right that puts you in that position.”
Frankly, from here, it looks like Johnson and Knaus could set the car up to make right-hand turns only and he’d still win his sixth. None of the other top eight in points seem to be able to put the kind of performance on the track week after week to do anything to stop him.
Johnson is still playing the game, however, saying all the right things to extend the drama, but it sounds hollow.
“We’re very excited going forward into the remaining mile-and-a-half tracks starting with Charlotte next week, and we’ll just keep fighting,” Johnson said. “This thing isn’t going to be over until Homestead. We came a long way from the opening race, or New Hampshire for that matter, but it’s still a lot of racing left.”
He didn’t exactly say anything patently untrue. The Chase is not, indeed, over until after Homestead and there are six more weekends left in the 2011 season. The championship, however, is already over. Mark it down. Five-Time will graduate to Six-Time on Nov. 20.
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