It's all over, or at least it appears that way, heading into the final four NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup races of 2013.
With five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson now in the points lead, his sixth championship seems all but inevitable.
Why so certain, you ask? After all, Matt Kenseth trails Johnson by a mere four points heading into this Sunday's latest Chase test at Martinsville Speedway.
That's next to nothing ... for most drivers. But not for Johnson, and not when he's got a full head of steam up in pursuit of Title No. 6.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have a simple blueprint for the No. 48 Chevrolet team from Hendrick Motorsports to follow over the final four races, and when it's done, they'll be celebrating their sixth championship together. Here is why:
The Math at Martinsville
Odds are heavily in Johnson's favor that he will leave Martinsville with a larger points lead than he has going in. The evidence is all in the numbers.
While Johnson owns eight career wins and a gaudy 5.3 average career finish at the tricky .526-mile paper clip, Kenseth has never won at the short track. Neither has Kyle Busch, who is 26 points behind Johnson and tied for third in the standings with Kevin Harvick, a one-time Martinsville winner.
The career average finishes for Johnson's closest Chase pursuers at Martinsville make it obvious all the pressure is on them to buck big odds and try to make up ground at a track where they're seemingly as uncomfortable as Johnson is in treating it like a pair of his own personal house slippers. Kenseth's average finish is 15.8; Busch's is 16.1 and Harvick's is 16.6.
Johnson and Knaus keep it simple. While others beat and bang on each other, usually from behind in frequently futile and sometimes disastrous attempts to gain ground, they stay way out front most of the time with the full intention of staying there. No one does a better job managing his brakes and rear tires than Johnson, either, at a place that obviously can eat them up and leave drivers who have fast cars early in the race frustrated by its end.
The Texas Two-Step
Texas Motor Speedway is a 1.5-mile track, and everyone knows how adept Johnson and Knaus are at mapping out in-race strategy on such layouts during the Chase. No one makes adjustments during races at the 1.5-mile tracks that are more effective than these two.
Yes, it is true that this is where Kenseth likely will make his strongest—and perhaps—last stand. His career numbers at Texas actually are slightly better than Johnson's. They each own two Texas wins, but Kenseth has a career average finish of 8.5 to Johnson's 9.1.
But if Johnson pads his points lead at Martinsville as expected, all he'll have to do with Kenseth at Texas is keep him within sight and basically hold serve. And of all the teams that recently participated in a test at Texas, you've got to believe the pair of Johnson and Knaus may have emerged with the most knowledge applicable to what they'll have to accomplish in the Nov. 3 race.
Kenseth participated in that test as well, but that doesn't mean his No. 20 Toyota team will enter the race on level ground with the Dynamic Duo from the No. 48 team. In fact, Kenseth crashed during the test—and can only hope that wasn't an omen of what lies ahead.
Fallout at Phoenix
Johnson admitted in a recent interview that he enjoys breaking the will of his closest competitors at Phoenix International Raceway, which since 2005 has served as the next-to-last stop on the long grind that comprises a 36-race Sprint Cup season.
Again, the numbers back him up. In 20 career starts at PIR, Johnson has four wins, 13 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes. During his run of five consecutive championships beginning in 2006, he used the fall race at the one-mile track as a springboard to clinching the Chase each time.
Folks love to talk about how he broke Denny Hamlin's spirit at Phoenix en route to the 2010 title, but Johnson also pointed out that in 2009 he entered Phoenix in a close battle with Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, then both Hendrick Motorsports teammates. He left in command of the Chase that year, too.
"I think in both of those instances and maybe some others, we were really able to break the momentum of who we were racing for the championship," Johnson said.
Happy at Homestead
Johnson has never won at Homestead-Miami Speedway—perhaps mostly because he rarely has entered the season finale figuring he had to in order to secure a championship.
That likely will be the case again this season, as he'll almost certainly arrive at Homestead needing only to start and finish something like 12th or 15th to clinch the title.
Of the other title contenders, only Kenseth has won at the track previously and Harvick has by far the best career average finish of the top four currently atop the standings (7.9). But Johnson's career average finish of 15.3 should be good enough—and he'll finish higher if he has to. That's just what he does.
Count on it.
Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes were obtained first-hand by the writer.
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz
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