|Happily headed for Dover|
Back-to-back runner-up finishes to start the 2012 Chase at Chicagoland and New Hampshire have pushed the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion back to the top of the heap. Johnson is a single point ahead of Chicagoland winner Brad Keselowski entering Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, and just seven points ahead of New Hampshire winner Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin was couple of missteps away from denying Johnson his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup title in 2010, and while the two appear ready to battle for the crown once again, the script is slightly different this time.
Johnson’s run to a fifth series championship came after a crippling a 25th-place finish in the Chase opener at NHMS, but that deficit didn’t last long. Just two races later, following a victory and a runner-up finish, Johnson was the point leader. He then reeled four consecutive Top-10 showings to put himself solidly in title contention.
While Hamlin called his shot by predicting last week’s New Hampshire win, Johnson is unlikely to make any such bold predictions about this Sunday’s race at the Monster Mile. His record there, however, could easily inspire him to do so.
Johnson led 289 of 400 laps in June’s FedEx 400 at Dover, posting a record-matching seventh victory at the one-mile, concrete oval. He now shares that mark with seven-time Dover winners Richard Petty and Bobby Allison; both of whom just happen to be NASCAR Hall of Famers. Dover is the most prolific track on the circuit for Johnson, a driver who is used to winning, and winning often.
Johnson won the AAA 400 in both 2009 and 2010, en route to his fourth and fifth championships. He has now won four of the last seven Dover races -- including a season sweep in 2009 – and his Dover Driver Rating of 120.6 is a full 10 points higher than that of his nearest competitor.
He has run a whopping 5,170 laps in the Top 15 – 86.1% of all laps run in the last 21 “Monster Mile” starts. In the last eight races, Johnson has led an amazing 54% of the laps contested; 1,719 of 3,200.
All that math adds up to a golden opportunity for Johnson and his Lowe’s Chevrolet team to distance themselves from the competition. Both Keselowski and Hamlin readily admits that Dover does not rank near the top of the “favorite tracks” list. In fact, Hamlin admitted today that he’d be happy with a Top-10 finish Sunday, and “ecstatic” with a Top-5.
Opportunity clearly knocks for Jimmie Johnson this weekend. We’ll see if he and his team are able to respond.
Photo: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images North America