Race Weekend Central

The Chase Favorite After Dover…Is Still Jimmie Johnson

The way things are being written, one would think Brad Keselowski was Miles the Monster himself after this weekend at Dover, a giant who smashed all before him in a decisive victory that left nothing in its wake. For those living under a rock on Sunday (and Monday), here’s a quick reminder; Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 was not the best car this race day. Brad did indeed blow by Jimmie Johnson for the lead…when the No. 48 was running at 80% throttle and the dominant JGR Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin fell victim to TRD’s awful fuel mileage. And yes, Brad did score his second win of the Chase, and in doing so built a mammoth five-point lead over Jimmie Johnson. Give that man the trophy.

There’s no question the pairing of Keselowski and Wolfe is certainly as formidable a foe to the No. 48 team as Hamlin & Ford was in 2010. Winning two of the first three Chase races, and both at tracks that Jimmie Johnson is no stranger to victory lane at, is a big deal. The next stretch of the schedule is tailor-made for the No. 2 team, with visits to Talladega and Kansas coming over the next three weeks. And for all the notoriety Brad has earned through his time in NASCAR as being among the most outspoken drivers in the garage, there’s been nary a trace of arrogance or over-confidence coming from this driver even after a scorching start to the Chase. He and Paul Wolfe are clicking at just the right time.

Brad Keselowski emerged victorious on Sunday, but just as it has been every weekend so far this Chase, Jimmie Johnson was amongst the class of the field.

But having said that, look at the numbers. Brad’s won two of the first three Chase races, yet he has only a five point lead. His challenge of Jimmie Johnson, impressive as it looked on TV, didn’t accomplish much of anything…because Johnson didn’t run out of fuel. A seemingly worst-case situation for the No. 48 team resulted in a fourth place finish. Yeah, that one hurt.

The fact is, as the Chase goes on, it’s the No. 48 team that’s poised to get stronger. The No. 2 team has been the surprise and the upstart contender to challenge for the title, but Johnson is following the formula that won him five Cup trophies to perfection, with three top 5 finishes in a row…and cars that were among the best in the field at Chicago, Loudon and Dover. Three races in, the No. 48 team is batting a thousand, a feat they haven’t pulled since 2008 (they went on to win five poles, three Chase races and the Cup that season).

And here’s the real kicker. As well as the No. 2 team is running, they don’t have reserves to tap into. A two-car team has one teammate to draw from, and that situation was the same at Loudon as it will be at Homestead. The best the No. 2 team can do at this point is to hold steady. The same can’t be said for Jimmie Johnson, who with three teammates (and three Chasers at that), is only going to have more resources as the Chase goes on. The reality is, sooner or later Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Kasey Kahne (or any combination of those three) are going to fall out of even remote contention for a championship. If NASCAR has learned anything about Chad Knaus over the past decade, it’s that he’s got full control over Hendrick’s resources. Meaning, if the No. 5 team falls off the radar screen, their notes, their cars, their personnel are at Knaus’ disposal. The same with the No. 24 team, and the No. 88 team.

All of that doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that the No. 48 team has been there and done this…five times. That the last time they were second in points three races into the Chase, they won it anyway. That fuel mileage has long been the Achilles’ heel of the most dominant team NASCAR has seen in decades…and again that weakness was a fourth place finish.

It’s almost as if desperation has already set in for everyone hoping to see a departure from the expected…that Johnson is back in the form that won him five consecutive titles, a form that the No. 48 team didn’t display a season ago. There wasn’t this big an outpouring of accolades and support when Greg Biffle went two-for-two to start the 2008 Chase. Or when Mark Martin’s career resurgence in 2009 led him to take the win in the first Chase event.

It’s been a largely blasé season for NASCAR racing, but that doesn’t alter reality. Brad Keselowski’s team deserves credit just as Denny Hamlin’s does for showing marked improvement on the high banks of Dover, but this was no overwhelming triumph. It was a fuel mileage win that Jimmie Johnson can easily overcome by finishing one position better than the No. 2 over the next seven races.

It’s a good close battle so three races in. But the No. 48 was the favorite coming in…and there’s no reason to bill them as anything else heading to Talladega.

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