When the leaves start to change colors the most popular question among both fans and competitors alike is “Who is going to dethrone Jimmie Johnson?”
Though Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have all made valiant efforts to topple the 48 juggernaut, Johnson along with ace crew chief Chad Knaus have thus far fended off each and every challenger for the crown.
That the 48 will be able to do so again this year however remains open for debate.
The 2011 Sprint Cup Series has been as wide-open a season as NASCAR has seen in years. In 26 regular season races 15 different drivers have made at least one trip to victory lane, including five first time winners in Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose.
Due to the volatility atop the leaderboard each week, we’ve seen a cornucopia of drivers have the label of “championship favorite” thrust upon them. At various points Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and of course, the five-time defending champion, Jimmie Johnson, all have been looked at as the driver most likely to drive away with the championship hardware when the season concludes nine weeks from Sunday.
And the above list doesn’t include Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth, both of whom have won multiple races and have shown at times the consistency needed to be the last man standing come Homestead.
So what are the keys to deciphering who is a legitimate contender and who is nothing more than a pretender masquerading as a challenger?
A year ago I came up with the following criteria to determine who will be crowned the champion after 10 weeks of hard racing, and 12 months later, everything still holds true.
1) Winning matters
Only once in six years has the eventual champion not won a race during the Chase era (See: Stewart, Tony; 2005). Why is that? The answer is pretty simple actually. Drivers who win championships have to finish at or near the front on a weekly basis. If you do that enough times, which you have to if you want to be in title contention, odds are that things will break your way at least once and you will find yourself in victory lane at the end of the day.
If you’re good enough to win a championship, you’re good enough to find a way to win at least once in a 10-race span.
When trying to determine whether a driver has a realistic shot at winning the title, I ask myself if I believe said driver is good enough to win a Chase race. If the answer is no, then there is no way that I would have confidence in picking that driver to win the championship.
Take Dale Earnhardt Jr. for example.
Does anyone outside the most delusional members of Junior Nation really expect their driver to even sniff the points lead let alone win his first title? No. And that’s because he hasn’t won a race since the summer of 2008, a span of 199 races without a collecting a checkered flag.
If Earnhardt can’t win a race in a year where even the much-maligned duo of David Ragan and Paul Menard won, how are we supposed to have confidence that Driver 88 is all of a sudden going to be able to flip the switch and run up front with the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch?
2) Bonus points are huge
The second criteria for predicting the Chase goes hand-in-glove with point number one. Bonus points for leading a lap and for leading the most laps can add up quickly. The best example of this is the 2004 Chase when Kurt Busch won his first and to date, only Sprint Cup championship over Jimmie Johnson.
In the closest title fight ever, Busch led at least one lap in nine of the 10 Chase races and the most laps in two of them for a total of 55 extra points. Whereas Johnson was able to only collect 30 additional points. Busch’s final margin of victory that year was just eight points. This underscores just how important leading laps and collecting bonus points are in the Chase.
With the margin of error this season razor thin, every little point could be the difference between championship glory and being an afterthought.
3) Consistency is everything
Leading laps is a good thing, winning is an even greater thing, but the thing that really can make or break a drivers championship aspirations is avoiding multiple mistakes that can lead to poor finishes.
It’s hard and borderline impossible to go 10 races without having something bad happen. Whether this is a tire going flat, an engine letting go, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Minimizing these things and making sure you don’t put yourself in a hole that you’re not capable of getting out of, is vastly important.
Only one time since 2004 has an eventual champion had more than one finish outside the top-20. When Jimmie Johnson did this in 2006, he needed a five race stretch where he finished no worse than second to claw his way back into the title picture. Johnson was lucky to be able to overcome his pratfalls, but there is a reason why no other driver has been able to overcome the same type of adversity. It’s damn near impossible.
Whereas in previous years a driver was able to overcome one, and maybe two poor finishes and still have a shot at winning the championship, that is no longer the case.
Due to NASCAR’s 43-1 point system which they introduced in the offseason, consistency is the name of the game like never before. A finish in the lower half of the running order will sink a driver’s championship hopes quicker than a random iceberg sunk the Titanic.
So who’s going to be the 2011 Sprint Cup champion?
Using the above criteria the answer is a fairly simple one.
It’s the same man who’s won the last five. For no other reason than the fact he excels in the three most important areas to paramount to winning a title.
All it takes is a quick glance at the record book to see that Jimmie Johnson wins more proficiently than anyone else. In Chase races alone he leads all drivers with 19 victories, 11 more than second-place Carl Edwards.
Not surprisingly considering the above stat, the 48 Lowes Chevrolet has paced the field a series-best 3,423 laps. Almost double the total of the next driver on the list, Matt Kenseth.
When it comes to consistency, again, not surprisingly, there’s no one in the class of the driver dubbed “Five-time.”
In the 70 Chase races that have been run since the Chase was introduced prior to the 2004 season, Johnson has finished in the top-10 an astonishing 54 times. In large part because no team knows how to salvage a bad day and turn it into good one as the 48 bunch does on a semi regular basis.
As in Phoenix last year or Texas in 2008 proved, as bad as Johnson’s car may run in the beginning or mid-portions of the race, when the checkered flag flies the 48 car more often than not somewhere in the top-10, or at least close enough to it where the points damage is minimal.
Few, if any, drivers and teams can match let alone exceed that resiliency. Although other drivers have won more races this season, and other drivers have looked more dominant at times, the smart money is on Johnson to complete his six-pack of championships.
As the saying goes, “To be the man, you have to beat the man.” And for the last five years running we’re still waiting for someone to beat Jimmie Johnson.
Until someone shows me otherwise, he’s my pick to once again win it all.
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