Jimmie Johnson's Dream 2013 Season Trending Down as Matt Kenseth Wins at Bristol
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What goes up, must come down. There's no better poster boy for that right now in NASCAR than Jimmie Johnson.
After leading the Sprint Cup standings for 20 of the first 23 weeks (and never ranking any lower than third place in the other three weeks), Johnson is still No. 1 after Saturday Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
But oh, how the lofty have fallen.
After leading second-ranked Clint Bowyer by a season-high 75 points after Watkins Glen two weeks ago, Johnson lost 34 points after finishing 40th last Sunday at Michigan.
Then, after finishing 36th Saturday night at Bristol, the five-time Sprint Cup champ lost another 23 points.
Johnson now leads Bowyer by a mere 18 points, a drop of 57 points in two weeks.
Even worse, with Matt Kenseth winning his fifth race of the season at Bristol, he takes over the lead to be the top seed when the points are reset for the Chase for the Sprint Cup in two weeks.
Given how Johnson has dominated almost uncannily this season, the odds kept growing virtually every race that sooner or later he'd be due for a bad race.
But this is Jimmie Johnson, the most successful driver in Sprint Cup in the past decade, hands down. With what happened at Michigan, he was due for a mulligan.
We'll give him that.
But with a second consecutive miserable finish Saturday night, Johnson is suddenly in a world of hurt. And if things don't quickly improve at Atlanta next weekend and Richmond the week after, Johnson will still go into the Chase with a high seed, but momentum may be nil.
With season-worst finishes in the past two races, is Jimmie Johnson in trouble for the upcoming Chase?
Johnson unquestionably has proved time after time that he knows how to handle pressure and bad luck. But with what Kenseth has done thus far this season, he's stepped up to be Johnson's biggest challenger and obstacle to a sixth Cup Championship.
What's more, as things stand right now, Kenseth is the only other past Cup champion in the top 10. Sure, defending champ Brad Keselowski is still well within striking distance in 11th place—just four points out of 10th—but he also dropped three spots after Bristol and is not one of the top candidates to earn one of the two wild-card spots to make the Chase.
So as the so-called Race to the Chase continues to wind down, the two biggest storylines that have emerged aren't necessarily all the drivers that are on the bubble to make the playoffs, but whether Johnson can hold off Kenseth's challenge and whether Keselowski will be able to find a way to make the Chase.
What has happened to Johnson in the past two weeks is unquestionably not ideal. Some might try to find a silver lining to the recent dark clouds, saying that it's better for Johnson to have struggles now and then come back with a vengeance in the Chase—as he has done so many times.
But what has happened the past two weeks makes me think back to what has happened to Johnson the past two seasons. He's proved fallible and human—and invariably came up short both times.
In 2011, he really wasn't much of a factor after the midpoint of the Chase, ultimately finishing the season with a sixth-place finish, the worst yearly showing for Johnson since he came to the Cup series full time.
In 2012, Johnson was in a significantly better position for title No. 6 than the previous year. But when he made an uncharacteristic mistake at Phoenix in the second-to-last race, ending up wrecking, that was a big warning sign.
And then in last season's final race at Homestead, in an uncharacteristic position of having to come from behind, Johnson forced the issue—and his race car—again a bit too much, parts broke and there went his title hopes for a second straight year.
Some might say that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were left with such sour tastes in their respective mouths the past two seasons, especially last year, that they obsessed all during last offseason to come out of the gate strong and to not look back when the 2013 campaign rolled around.
That's exactly what they've done—well, at least until the last two races, which also have been Johnson's worst two outings of the season. In fact, he's finished out of the top 20 only three other times this season.
Now it's time for Johnson and Knaus to rally back. They have to shake off the past two races and act as if the results never happened. Because if they play from a defensive tactic, it could come back to haunt them once the Chase begins.
Even if Johnson has another bad race or two in the last two pre-Chase races, in a way, that's okay. Because no other team has come close to elevating itself in the playoffs year after year like the No. 48 team.
The results speak for themselves. (Well, okay, I'll concede that maybe Keselowski elevated himself above Johnson for much of last year's Chase.)
Yet after what we've seen from Johnson in the past two Chases, the third time is either going to be a charm or a strikeout.
And if that happens, just like he's done already several times this season when Johnson has struggled, waiting in the wings will be Kenseth.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.
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