History favors Johnson for Cup|Racer ready to make a run at a fifth championship

Published 4:27 pm Wednesday, September 15, 2010

By By Anthony Andro, McClatchy Newspapers
Denny Hamlin has more victories this year than Jimmie Johnson, and there are others who are running better than the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet.
But that all figures to change now that the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship begins.
Johnson, who has won the last four Sprint Cup titles, will begin a bid for No. 5 Sunday at Loudon, N.H. He’ll do so as the No. 2 seed behind Hamlin and with five finishes outside the top 20 in his last nine races.
But just the fact that Johnson is in the Chase makes him the favorite to win his fifth consecutive title.
The 12-car Chase field is deep, with Hamlin feeling good as the No. 1 seed and the winner of six races. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch have all won titles too.
But no one is better in the Chase than Johnson. When he won his first title in 2006, Johnson did so despite winning just one Chase race. He won four in 2007, three in 2008 and then four more last year when he won the record-setting title by 141 points.
When Johnson isn’t winning Chase races, he’s piling up points. In the last three years, Johnson has racked up 25 top-10 finishes in the 30 playoff races.
Other than Johnson’s drive for five, here are some other things to watch out for in the Chase, which begins with Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet): The resurgence at Richard Childress Racing has been led by Harvick. He could benefit from having two teammates (Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton) in the Chase. But his major advantage will be the fact that he’s already won five times this year, and no driver has more top 10 finishes this year than Harvick’s 17.
Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M’s Toyota): Just by getting in the Chase, Busch is a threat. He’s one of the few Chase drivers with the ability to go on a winning streak. What’s made the difference for Busch this year is that he’s been able to salvage solid finishes even when things don’t go right for him during a race. Minimizing damage is pivotal in a 10-race sprint for a title.
Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Fedex Office Toyota): It all goes back to Phoenix for Hamlin. That’s when he drove despite coming off surgery on his knee, and stayed in the car the entire race despite not having a competitive ride. He won the next week in Fort Worth, and will go into the Chase as the top seed because of his six victories. His team knows he won’t quit on them, and that could be a big factor in the Chase.
Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet): Everyone knows it would be a great story if Gordon could finally get championship No. 5. But this doesn’t look like the year. Gordon still hasn’t won a race since April 2009 at Texas Motor Speedway, and Gordon will start the Chase without the benefit of bonus points or momentum. His best finish in the last five races is 10th.
Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Ford): Give Kenseth credit for being practical. Just making the Chase isn’t enough for him, but he knows he can’t win the championship. He’s in the Chase, but he lacks the horsepower to run with the contenders. One top-five finish in 14 starts isn’t exactly the kind of momentum with which one wants to start the Chase.
Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet): Sure, Bowyer raced his way into the Chase, but he’s still winless on the year and too inconsistent to win this. Normally it takes two bad races to eliminate a driver from Chase contention. Seven finishes outside the top 20 make Bowyer a candidate for that distinction.
Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet): Stewart seems to be peaking at the right time. He picked up his first win two weekends ago, and comes into the Chase having finished in the top 10 in six of his last eight starts.
Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford): Unlike last year, at least this season Edwards is in the Chase. But like Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle, he may be in the Chase in name only. Edwards still hasn’t won since the season finale at Homestead in 2008.
Key tracks
Martinsville: The only short track begins the second half of the Chase, when title contenders normally are revealed. Not surprisingly, Jimmie Johnson has won three of the last four fall races at Martinsville. He finished second last year.
Talladega: This is always a pivotal track in the Chase because it’s more about survival than winning. Last year Jimmie Johnson basically wrapped up the title by avoiding disaster and finishing sixth. Mark Martin, who ended up second in the points, was caught in a crash and finished 28th.
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