NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Five Points to Ponder: Johnson’s Streak, Martin’s Mark and AJ’s Smile

Since we’re half way home in the 2012 iteration of the Chase, I’m going to get right down to business with this week’s edition of Five Points to Ponder; starting with the Sprint’s Cup’s own version of the 800 pound gorilla in the room, old Five-Time himself.


If Jimmie Johnson looks happy, he has every right to be. His No. 48 is still in form for his sixth Cup.

*ONE: Jimmie Johnson Still Hasn’t Slipped Up*

We’ll start with the cold hard 2012 Chase facts so far: Johnson has finished second at both Chicagoland and Loudon, fourth at the Monster Mile and third last Saturday night at Charlotte. Yes, perhaps predictably, Johnson got caught up in the big wreck at Talladega, but his 17th place finish was not too bad, all things considered, and certainly good when compared to his three other restrictor plate finishes of 35th, 36th and 42nd in 2012.

More worryingly for the rest of the field, Johnson made a fuel mileage gamble on the final run that actually worked. It’s an area that has been something of an Achilles heel for the No. 48 team with Johnson himself the first to admit he was terrible at saving fuel. But if he’s now finding a way to get it done, especially given the remaining schedule including three cookie cutters, the chief Chase protagonists should be seriously scared. Saturday’s third place effort cut Keselowski’s lead in half with Johnson now a mere seven points out. Johnson pretty much has not put a foot wrong so far in this year’s Chase. If he continues like this over the next five weeks it will be title number six for Johnson. Stay tuned folks; the juggernaut is gaining speed.

*TWO: Half Way through the Chase: A Retrospective*

With Brad’s lead sliced in half leaving Charlotte, I figured I would take a look back at the halfway point in the previous Chases to see if we can determine anything with regard to current positions. Admittedly we only have a small sample size – eight to be precise – and the results are mixed.

In year one of the Chase in 2004 Kurt Busch held the lead at the halfway point and would go on to become champion. The following year, 2005, Tony Stewart, that season’s champ, was tied with Jimmie Johnson (but ahead on a tie breaker). From 2008 through 2010, Johnson held the lead midway through and went on to win the title. But in the three other years it was a different story. In 2006, Jeff Burton (remember him?) held the lead while Johnson, then without a title, was a distant seventh place 146 points off the pace (under the old points system). The following year, it was another Jeff, Gordon this time that held a 68-point lead over eventual champ Johnson. Then of course last year we had Tony Stewart’s surge from fifth place and 24 points back to win it all.

So what does all this mean? It means Brad Keselowski is sitting in a great spot but nothing is guaranteed. 2300 miles and five races remain. This is NASCAR – a lot can happen. Yes, even on cookie cutter circuits, I promise.

*THREE: Mark Martin – the Ageless Wonder: 850 and Counting*

I am a huge fan of Mark Martin. He’s not “my favorite driver,” if you want to put it that way, but I always hope for success for the man I affectionately call the Raisin. Saturday night’s race under the lights at NASCAR’s home track was Martin’s 850th start at the sport’s top echelon: an amazing testament to his skill and longevity. A sixth place finish wasn’t a bad effort for a man who has picked up 40 wins, 55 poles and 270 top-5 finishes over the years. Martin is also fifth on the list for most starts ever made. He should catch Terry Labonte (881 starts,) Dave Marcis (883 starts) and likely Ricky Rudd (906,) but the King’s mark of 1185 races looks out of reach.

Regardless, it’s still a significant milestone for one of the sport’s most enduring and popular drivers. The new lease on life Martin has had at Michael Waltrip Racing; not to mention his influence behind the scenes, suggest that he is far from ready to ride off into the sunset just yet. Long may that continue and here’s hoping there’s one more trip to Victory Lane in the future for a man who has brought class and dignity to the sport his entire career.

*FOUR: The Greatest Paint Scheme Ever: The Remarkable Return of AJ Allmendinger*

It took quite the series of dominos to fall for AJ Allmendinger to return to Sprint Cup racing, so let’s quickly review. Dale Junior sat out the race due to concussive effects of his testing wreck at Kansas and the big one at Talladega. So Regan Smith slipped into Junior’s hot seat, having just switched rides (not of his own volition) with Kurt Busch who took up driving duties in the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy. This left a hole to fill for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team and AJ Allmendinger was more than happy to step up and man the wheel of the No. 51 car.

AJ ended up finishing 24th (having started 38th), which was a great effort for a driver whose racing career looked mighty precarious after his suspension for substance abuse.

“I was hoping I could have repaid that favor with a little bit stronger finish. But it was great to get back in the car and compete again,” said Allmendinger. “It was a solid weekend all around despite everything coming together so quickly. I want to also thank everyone who has been so supportive through this entire process. It meant a lot, and now we are all focused on building on this and looking forward to whatever comes next.”

But perhaps the best part of the entire night was the giant smiley face the team painted on the hood of the car – a veiled yet gargantuan middle finger to the previous driver if ever I saw one – and one of the greatest paint schemes I’ve seen.

Allmendinger, per his twitter (@AJDinger), will be back in the car for Kansas and while these are just baby steps, it’s good to see him back racing after a tough stretch these past few months.

*FIVE: Is Anyone Expecting Even a Half-decent Race in Kansas?*

I guess one of the few good things I can say about the race at Kansas Speedway this weekend is that no-one is expecting anything other than another fuel-mileage snoozer that no amount of cautions – manufactured or otherwise – can change. Of course, the hope is we’ll see a classic race (isn’t that always the case, it is for me) but the reality suggests otherwise. This is, let’s not forget, a problem entirely of NASCAR’s making.

Kansas, home of title sponsor Sprint, should never have secured a second race date, especially not in the Chase. Simply put, the Chase should have as many of the best tracks as possible – to fully showcase the sport and for it to appeal to the widest audience possible. But Kansas does have a date, so we have to make the most of it. At least my expectations are low; let’s hope I’m pleasantly surprised.

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