Jimmie Johnson’s dominant victory at Texas Motor Speedway Sunday pushed the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series king back into the championship lead with just two weeks remaining until the Sprint Cup championship is decided at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It also pushed a small-but-vocal band of Johnson haters to the window ledge, bemoaning the possibility of Johnson’s sixth Sprint Cup Series title in the last eight years.
Recent history, however, indicates that Johnson while Johnson may be the favorite for championship number six, he is no shoo-in.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver admittedly took the field to the wood shed Sunday in the Lone Star State, leading 255 of 364 laps en route to the checkered flag in the AAA Texas 500. He had the dominant car from start to finish, and drove a mistake-free race while Kenseth scrambled to recover from an ill-time pit road speeding penalty.
In the aftermath of his win, Johnson leads Kenseth by just seven points; ironically the same margin he enjoyed over unheralded Brad Keselowski leaving Texas a year ago. Finishes of 32nd and 36th at Phoenix and Homestead dashed Johnson’s 2012 title hopes, and the Lowe’s Chevrolet driver has been running at the finish of all but one race this season, he has seven finishes of 20th or worse on this record this season. Beginning in mid-August at Michigan International Speedway, Johnson staggered to four consecutive back-of-the-pack finishes – 40th at MIS, 36th at Bristol, 28th at Atlanta and 40th at Richmond – proving that even Superman encounters a lump of kryptonite every once in a while.
This week, the numbers favor Johnson once again.
At Phoenix International Raceway, he is a four-time winner in 20 career starts, with an average finish of 6.4. Kenseth has struggled by comparison, claiming just one win in 22 career starts and finishing outside the Top-10 in more than half his starts en route to an average finish of 17.2. While the statistics point to another big day for Jimmie Sunday, they said the same at Martinsville, where Kenseth shocked the railbirds with a solid, runner-up finish to Johnson’s somewhat pedestrian fifth.
Kenseth has made a habit of bucking the trend this season, running well at tracks where he has floundered in the past. Don’t be surprised if he does it again in Phoenix, carrying the battle for the 2014 Sprint Cup all the way to its final weekend.
If that happens, it’s anybody’s ballgame.
Homestead-Miami Speedway is one of only five NASCAR tracks where Johnson has never claimed the checkered flag. In his 12 previous visits there, he has seldom been required to extend himself and race hard, relying instead on healthy championship point leads that have allowed him to race conservatively to the title.
When forced to race hard for the title, Johnson has not fared well at Homestead. In 2011, a 32nd-place finish left him sixth in the championship standings. Last season, a loose lug nut on a midrace pit stop cost him valuable track position, before an uncharacteristic rear gear failure left him 36th at race’s end and sent Keselowski to the champion’s stage.
It happened before, and it could happen again, especially since Kenseth’s seven victories give him the tiebreaker over Johnson, who has six.
Make no mistake about it, Jimmie Johnson can hang up his helmet tomorrow and become a first-ballot inductee to the NASCAR Hall Of Fame. His 66th career wins rank him eighth on NASCAR’s all time list, just 11 behind the great Dale Earnhardt. His five championships trail only Earnhardt and Richard Petty, and he is the only driver in the history of the sport to win five titles consecutively.
By any yardstick you care to use, Johnson is one of the best ever to turn a wheel in NASCAR. But he is not the 2014 titlist just yet.
Not by a long shot.