Johnson expects Chase to go down to wire

by Monte Dutton

Supposedly, NASCAR officials are contemplating an offseason change in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that would provide some sort of elimination process.

Based on the current Chase, it sort of takes care of itself.

Seven races into the 10-race Chase, the crowd at the top is noteworthy. Never have three drivers been locked in such a tight battle, with 38 points separating Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

But, with the great “wild card” (Talladega) behind them, the race has been effectively limited to those three. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon is fourth but trails Johnson by 207 points. Clint Bowyer, the winner of the Amp Energy Juice 500 — and only driver to win twice during the Chase to date — brings up the rear, 367 points behind Johnson. Gordon, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Bowyer all are far off the pace entering the remaining races in Fort Worth, Texas; Avondale, Ariz.; and Homestead, Fla.

Johnson has won the past four Sprint Cup championships, an unprecedented achievement, but in each of his past titles, Johnson took a decent cushion into the final race. He doesn’t expect that to be the case this time.

“The way it’s gone, I better be prepared for [winning] the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway,” said Johnson. “If I’m not, then we aren’t doing our jobs. The last couple years down there, we’ve made sure that we had pace in our car and speed. Last year we won the pole, finishing sixth [actually fifth]. Ran good, had a strong night being conservative.

“I feel like coming to Homestead this time, we need to race for this thing, which I’m pretty confident we’re going to have to do.”

At Talladega, Harvick finished second, Johnson seventh and Hamlin ninth. Harvick has the most top-10 finishes (23). Johnson and Harvick each have 15 top-five finishes. Hamlin has the most victories (7), one more than Johnson.

After Talladega, where Hamlin managed to come back from being a lap down to the leaders, he said, “It looked like everyone broke even. I lost a little to the ‘48’ [Johnson], lost to the ‘29’ [Harvick], but still it wasn’t anything detrimental.”

Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for the Gaston (NC) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week (nascar.rbma. com) features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at ‘© 2010 King Features Syndicate

Jimmie Johnson (above, with crew chief Chad Knaus) says that winning a fifth-straight championship will be tougher than the previous four. (John Clark/NASCAR This Week photo)