I think I have said this every year and will probably continue to say this ever year thereafter, but I am always amazed at how fast the season goes.
The Daytona 500 simultaneously feels like years ago and days ago. I remember the race clearly and recall already thinking about the Chase and how different the season would look once the Chase starts as opposed to our preconceived notions at the beginning of the season. Everyone was looking at the No. 4 of Kevin Harvick, the notion of Jeff Gordon’s final season was fresh in everyone’s mind, and expectations were high on the season following a spectacularly exciting season finale in 2014.
Now, Harvick has won several races but could have easily won several more had things gone more their way in terms of luck. Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, two other championship contenders in the final race last season, have done decent but don’t appear to be championship material. Joey Logano, the fourth contender, has done very well in 2015 and could easily be one of the final four this season as well.
And then there’s Jimmie Johnson. Despite the fact that it has been two full seasons since he has won a championship and 12 races since he has won this season, a six-time champion still inevitably has to be a part of the conversation. Even with a gap in visits to Victory Lane, Johnson is still tied for the most victories with Kyle Busch at four and usually begins showing his true colors once the Chase actually begins.
While I still hesitate to write Johnson off completely and refuse to fall into the trap of doing so as in years past, I can’t help but remember how this new Chase system essentially tripped the No. 48 team up last season. Johnson finished the season with four victories, including one in the Chase, but poor finishes at Talladega and Charlotte wiped out his championship chances for a record-tying seventh championship and he wound up 11th in the final standings.
Despite the fact that I know better, I can’t help but wonder if NASCAR has finally found a system that has tamed — for lack of a better word — the No. 48 team. Of course it was just one season, but with poor finishes being equally as detrimental now as a win is beneficial, I can’t help but wonder if it have now been bested.
Then again, the team currently appears to be doing exactly what it needs to do: Knock off a bunch of wins at the beginning of the season, accumulating top 10 after top 10 through the summertime stretch, only to return to dominance again in the Chase.
Yes, I know, that last part hasn’t happened yet. But with NASCAR returning to a consistent rules package (one that Johnson and co. seem to have mastered over the years) and most of the Chase tracks being Johnson’s strongest, I can’t help but think the No. 48 will return more to the type of performance we saw from Johnson at the beginning of the season.
Now, whether or not the team can make it to the season finale as a contender remains to be seen, but I don’t think Johnson will wind up 11th again. If the presence of Newman in the season finale proved anything, it’s that consistency is still vastly important. Yes, you do still need to win (Logano and Harvick proved this) but that is only part of the equation.
Johnson’s two strengths are consistency and winning when the chips are down. That’s actually still a winning combination with this still-new Chase system.
Why bring all this up? Richmond is the final race before the Chase and all eyes are going to be on the bottom of the standings to see who makes it in. That’s fair, but when the race is over, there is going to be a familiar name at the top of the standings and we’ll be forced to analyze how this Chase is going to go with an accurate representation of who is there.
I don’t know if this Chase will be more of a challenge to the No. 48 team moreso than in years past, but if anyone knows how to strategize and manipulate the points system, it’s Johnson, Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team as a whole.
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