Talladega Superspeedway was the race that was supposed to shake up the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field. With trouble lurking on every lap and “The Big One” just one miscue away, the race was dubbed as the “wild card” of the 10-race Chase. While the results of Sunday’s restrictor-plate race failed to provide a major shakeup in the championship nor “The Big One,” it did yield one firm answer – the championship will now have to go through Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson, who finished a lackluster 13th after leading the most laps in Sunday’s race at Talladega, was able to exit with a four-point advantage over previous leader Matt Kenseth with four races remaining. Johnson is all too familiar with owning the points lead at this stage of the Chase and his history of relinquishing it is nonexistent.
A winner of five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships from 2006-10, Johnson has held the championship lead three times heading into the final four races and on all three occasions he has gone on to win the championship. The combination of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus has proven to excel when the target is squarely on their backs. And with the final four race tracks on the schedule serving as some of Johnson’s strongest – including a Nov. 3 stop at Texas Motor Speedway for the AAA Texas 500 – he is in position to earn his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship with Hendrick Motorsports.
“You know I feel that the races forward now are up to where the competitors go earn it,” Johnson said. “You don’t have his luck issue that can take place at (restrictor) plate tracks. So I am happy to have the points lead and we went through a lot of work to get there. We were just getting one point at a time and we got a few more than normal today and were able to get the lead. We just go racing from here and that is the thing I am most excited for. Great race tracks, great race cars and it’s just going to be a dogfight to the end.”
The pack of drivers within striking distance of Johnson – Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon – understand the challenges that are ahead of them the next four weeks.
Kenseth, who entered the weekend at Talladega with a four-point lead over Johnson, will look to rebound from a disappointing 20th-place finish. While he may no longer have the championship lead, Kenseth understands that he and his Joe Gibbs Racing team remain in a strong position to capture the Sprint Cup title.
“I don’t think it will affect my team,” Kenseth said. “I think I have one of the greatest teams out here, obviously, and I feel like we can go everywhere else, and honestly we can race with anybody when we’re at our best. Hopefully, we’ll be at our best the next four weeks and we’ll give them a run for their money.”
Gordon, searching for his first championship under the Chase format, sits 34 points back of Johnson heading into this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway. Gordon, whose championship aspirations were given new life after he was awarded an unprecedented 13th spot in the Chase by NASCAR following the transgressions of Michael Waltrip Racing at Richmond International Raceway, realizes that both Johnson and Kenseth will need to falter.
With that in mind, Gordon has the freedom to race without pressure unlike those at the top of the championship and remain mindful of every single point.
“We’ve got a big gap there,” Gordon said. “And we’ve been racing really, really good and the cars have been fast and I’m proud of the team, but we’ve got to have some things happen to get ourselves really in the mix of this thing.”
Despite having two veteran Sprint Cup Series champions in Kenseth and Gordon, along with a pair of hungry drivers in search of their first championship in Harvick and Busch behind him, Johnson can now shift his focus squarely ahead. He understands the difficulty in trying to maintain focus on his team and not worry about the competition, but that’s been the key to his success.
“Even before when I mentioned looking forward you have to be aware of people behind you,” Johnson said. “I think any psychologist or type of coaching you would listen to, nobody wants you to look behind, they always want you to look forward. Looking forward, but certainly know who is behind us.”