Is there anything more depressing for the eleven other Chase participants than seeing Jimmie Johnson atop the standings headed to a track — Dover International Speedway — where he routinely re-defines the word dominance? Back in June at the first race of the year at the high banked concrete one-miler, the No. 48 team eviscerated the competition, starting second and leading 289 of the 400 laps. The victory moved Johnson up to third on the all-time laps led list at the Monster Mile with 2,275 in just 21 starts; his seventh victory also tied him for most all-time alongside Richard Petty and Bobby Allison — two legends of the sport.
“God, I love this place,” said Johnson as he celebrated his June victory.
“You whipped ’em today,” echoed crew chief Chad Knaus on the radio.
Such then has been the level of supremacy, strength of teamwork and sheer brilliance in a stock car these past ten years that there are those already ready to plan the coronation of Jimmie Johnson in 2012. The six-pack effect is, well, in full effect. And it’s hard, on one level, to argue with that assertion: Double J is honing inexorably toward title number six. But I, for one, am not ready to crown King Jimmie just yet, and it’s in large part due to the form and the attitude of two drivers looking for a maiden championship; namely Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.
Sure, there are other drivers still in the mix–you can never rule out Tony Stewart after what he did last year as he quests for a fourth Cup championship. Kasey Kahne is another, having righted the ship after a terrible opening couple of months in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 machine. And don’t rule out Clint Bowyer either, who has shown that with the right equipment under him–something he certainly has this year–that he can challenge right down to the sharp end of the season. Bowyer, remember, finished third in 2007 and fifth in 2008. And while I’m on the subject of drivers that can, don’t rule out either Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Greg Biffle just yet, even if neither can afford too many more “less good” weeks. All of which brings me back to Hamlin and Keselowski, who I believe seem the most likely wheelmen to topple the Johnson juggernaut.
I’ll start with the king of Twitter himself, Brad Keselowski (@keselowski), who is as adept at running his mouth off in 140 characters as he is wheeling a race car around the track. Competing in just his third full season at the Sprint Cup level, what’s clear is that the driver of the Blue Deuce is here to stay. With eight total wins and seven in the last 40 races, Keselowski has cemented his seat at NASCAR’s top table. If he were to win Roger Penske a first Cup title, it would not be a surprise at all.
His relationship with head wrench Paul Wolfe is a symbiotic one and will only continue to grow as they get more and more experience under their belt. In 2011, in his first Chase appearance, four top 5 runs in the first six races saw him well in contention before he faded and Tony Stewart went on his unique, record setting tear.
So this is a team very much on the rise and one has started to make a habit of finishing well on less than optimal days. If anyone can handle the pressure of a sustained run for a first title, the number two crew would be that team.
“I’ve never been afraid to put the effort in, and I’ve had great teachers in my life to showcase what that effort means, whether it’s my dad or guys like Paul Wolfe or guys on the team,” said Keselowski, prior to the Loudon race. “I know there’s a group of people around me right now at Penske Racing that work their butts off and make sacrifices to their own lives for me to be successful. It sure would be a shame to not give the same.”
I wouldn’t expect to see anything but maximum effort and maximum results from Keselowski and Co. these next eight weeks. If that effort results in a championship, he’d be a worthy champion. And from a guy that fired up the social media world at the start of the 2012 season by becoming the first person to tweet live in race from the Daytona 500 (albeit under a red flag), I’d sure like to see what he has planned on Twitter if he does win the big trophy in Miami.
While I’m on the topic of Twitter, there’s my other chief protagonist to Jimmie J, one Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin). The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota boldly predicted he would win the race in Loudon after a disappointing finish to the first Chase race at Chicago, when he ran out of gas with two to go after a botched pit stop, losing seven places (and seven precious points) in the process. Win it he did and then some, recovering from another error–his tires for qualifying were set at race pace instead–charging through the field from 32nd spot to the lead in less than one hundred laps.
Too often in NASCAR the best car doesn’t win; it’s been a charge leveled against Hamlin in this and previous seasons on multiple occasions, but this time the best car (by a mile) won. This Sunday it will be very different. Hamlin typically struggles badly at the Monster Mile, so if he can salvage a relatively decent day he won’t drop too far behind presumptive race winner Jimmie Johnson.
Even if Hamlin has a disastrous Dover day, I still wouldn’t rule him out. There’s a maturity and a confidence in Hamlin the likes of which we’ve never seen, and the likes of which should scare his competition rotten. Putting it simply, Hamlin is having fun. In the 2010 Chase, where he came closer to unseating Johnson than anyone in the five in a row stretch, Hamlin let the pressure get to him in the most unnecessary ways. I don’t see that being the case this time round. If Denny is in the same position he was with two to go this time round, he’ll get it done. He’s that much better and more mature a driver, and he was already plenty good enough in the first place.
So will it be Miller Time or Denny-time to quench the quest for a Johnson six-pack? Right now, it’s too early to tell and with Talladega looming large, even more so, but if anyone is likely to best Johnson this year, I’d wager it will be either Hamlin or Keselowski that gets the job done. One way or another, both should be mighty fun to watch these next eight weeks.