Turn out the lights, the party's almost over.
Or if you're Jimmie Johnson, perhaps the real party is just about to get started. In winning the AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in dominant fashion, the stock car racer with the well-earned moniker of Five Time put a couple of myths to rest while positioning himself perfectly to put in for a nickname upgrade.
With two races left in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Johnson is right where he wants to be as he seeks his sixth Sprint Cup championship. He'll head into next week's race at Phoenix International Raceway with a seven-point edge over Matt Kenseth, the only contender left within reasonable striking distance after Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick crapped out in the wake of the No. 48 Chevrolet's exhaust fumes at Texas.
Prior to Texas, one myth that lurked on the NASCAR fringe was that perhaps this wasn't a two-man race for the championship after all. Gordon's surprise win a week earlier at Martinsville had earned him entry back into the title conversation, while Harvick and even Kyle Busch also seemed ready to pounce if Johnson and Kenseth—the points co-leaders coming in—encountered trouble at Texas.
Another myth that seems to grow in popularity every year around this time, but usually washes out as little more than wishful thinking by the other 42 competitors in Sprint Cup, is that perhaps Johnson was more vulnerable than usual. This time, that myth's fragile foundation seemed rooted in the failure of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to win on a 1.5-mile track this season prior to Texas.
Well, now there is no doubt. It IS a two-man race between Johnson and Kenseth—and Johnson doesn't seem vulnerable at all heading into the final two races. In fact, it looks as if he's darn near unbeatable, and it will be a huge upset now if Kenseth does somehow catch and pass him.
This didn't go exactly according to Johnson's usual blueprint to a title, but so what? Whatever he failed to add to his points total as had been expected a week earlier at Martinsville came back to him and then some at Texas, where it was reasoned beforehand that Kenseth might actually have a slight advantage.
Instead, Kenseth lost ground despite a gutty performance of his own that netted fourth place on a day when it might have been much, much worse for him and his No. 20 Toyota team.
And those who had noted that Johnson had yet to win at a 1.5-mile track in this year's Chase? Johnson checked that box, too, and in dominant fashion by leading 255 laps of the 334-lap race.
Now all that remains are two races where it seems highly unlikely that Johnson and his No. 48 team are going to stumble.
First up: Phoenix, where Johnson's career numbers are incredible but admittedly not as relevant as they once were because of a repave and reconfiguration of the 1-mile track in 2011. In 20 career starts, he has four wins, 13 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes. But Johnson admitted in a recent interview that he isn't entirely comfortable with the track since the repave and reconfiguration.
"All I know is that I never used to be nervous going to Phoenix. And now I'm nervous," Johnson said.
Nonetheless, his 32nd-place finish in the fall race at Phoenix last November came courtesy of a blown right front tire. That's bad luck. And you can bet that this time, he'll pit at the first hint of any kind of trouble instead of trying to push for all that he can get in any given green-flag run.
After Phoenix, all that will be left is the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It's one of only five current Sprint Cup tracks where Johnson has never won—but that arguably could be because he's rarely gone into the season finale needing a win to secure a championship.
And then there is this: Johnson and Knaus always seem to get more than anyone else that proves applicable to race day out of a day of testing at tracks. They tested at Texas and put what they learned to work to win the race. They recently tested at Homestead as well and probably won't have to do much more than run in the top 10 there to secure their sixth title together.
The door isn't completely closed on Kenseth. But he'll have to win the race spectacularly at Phoenix or hope Johnson has a meltdown that's very unlikely now that the No. 48 team is in a protect-and-not-pursue position in the point standings.
Kenseth does have one more victory on the season and thus holds the tiebreaker edge over Johnson—unless Johnson wins at Phoenix and/or Homestead.
But the way it looks now, Johnson won't even have to win at either place. A pair of solid top-five finishes and the title should be his—and that's assuming Kenseth and his team, led by the talented by relatively inexperienced Jason Ratcliff, doesn't have a meltdown of their own.
Bottom line: book the party room at South Beach, Jimmie. A sixth championship celebration should be under way soon enough.
All quotes from this article obtained first-hand by the writer.
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz
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