There is no question that right now it's all checkered flags and runner-up finishes for the Joe Gibbs Racing tandem of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch in NASCAR's 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But that can't last forever, and they know it. Perhaps worse yet for JGR's dynamic duo, Jimmie Johnson also knows it all too well.
Johnson, the five-time Cup champ, currently rides in third in the Chase point standings heading into the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway—the third of 10 Chase races that will determine who rules the roost this year in NASCAR's top national touring series. Johnson is only four points behind Busch, who trails leader Kenseth by 14.
But while Kenseth and Busch garnered virtually all the attention, and rightly so, after their stunning back-to-back one-two finishes in the first two Chase races at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, Johnson is in no position to panic. In fact, there is a fair amount of evidence that the two guys left running in front of him should be the ones who are worried.
The Chad Factor
Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, remains the best in the business.
That isn't to say that the other two crew chiefs at the forefront of this Chase battle are slouches. They aren't.
Jason Ratcliff obviously has done a fantastic job in his first season paired with Kenseth, who already has won a career-high and series-high seven races. Dave Rogers' patient hand and strong will as Busch's crew chief have helped calm Rowdy down to the point where he finally can remain in the Chase championship conversation longer than two races into the playoffs.
But neither of them is Knaus. No one knows the Chase better than the wily man who sits atop Johnson's pit box. No one knows the tracks better and no one knows the strategy that must be played to win a title better. Knaus remains the proverbial ace up Johnson's fire-suit sleeve.
If this was a Presidential election and the pollsters were out canvassing the battle states and crunching numbers, it would not bode well for either Kenseth or Busch.
Johnson has amassed 31 career victories at the remaining eight Chase tracks, where his overall average finish is a stunning 10.2. In fact, the only Chase track where he hasn't won multiple times is Homestead-Miami Speedway, the site of the season finale which remains one of only five tracks on the current Sprint Cup circuit where Johnson has never won. He has seven career victories at Dover, eight at Martinsville, six at Charlotte and four at Phoenix.
Neither Kenseth nor Busch owns more than two victories in their careers at any of the remaining Chase stops. And while Johnson has career average finishes of 9.1 or lower at five of the eight tracks left, Kenseth has just one such venue (8.5 average finish at Texas) and Busch has none lower than the 13.3 average finish he owns at Dover.
Over the last eight tracks, in fact, Kenseth has a total of 11 career wins and an average finish of 14.9, while Busch has five wins and an average finish of 17.8. Those aren't necessarily horrible numbers, but they certainly pale in comparison to the ones posted by Johnson over the years.
Been There, Done That
Johnson loves the tracks that are remaining, as evidenced by the aforementioned numbers.
The No. 48 team always has had a better handle than the opposition on the 1.5-mile tracks that dominate the Chase schedule. Three such tracks remain in Kansas, Charlotte and Texas.
Then there are Johnson's specialty tracks. Dover, the Monster Mile where he has a career average finish of 9.0 to go along with his seven wins, is one. So is Martinsville, the short track where he has the eight wins and an average finish of 5.3. Phoenix, a one-miler with a unique configuration where his average finish is 6.4, is yet another and is where he often breaks the backs of Chase competition even before they reach the season finale at Homestead.
In fact, it could be argued that the main reason Johnson has never won at Homestead is because he has rarely been forced into a position where he had to win there to secure a championship. During his five championship seasons, he pretty much took care of business before he even arrived in sunny Miami.
As Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammates fade further and further from the Chase picture, the considerable company resources will be funneled more and more to the No. 48 team.
Never has that been more evident than during Johnson's last championship season in 2010, when Knaus ordered a pit-crew swap in the middle of the Chase race at Texas with Jeff Gordon's more efficient crew. Even though Gordon also was in the Chase at the time, he had wrecked out of the race and was out of championship contention with only stops at Phoenix and Homestead remaining. Knaus' wish was granted on the spot without a batting of an eye by team owner Rick Hendrick, and the No. 24 pit crew became the No. 48's pit crew for the remainder of the title run.
Hendrick Motorsports' resources run deeper than that, of course. They arguably have the most and best engineers, many of the finest minds in the sport. And their engines and parts have a more proven track record of consistent speed and reliability than do their counterparts at Joe Gibbs Racing.
So for now, Johnson remains the hunter of Kenseth and Busch. But that could change in this Chase, and quickly.
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