Remember a few weeks ago, when so many folks were wondering quite out loud what was wrong with Jimmie Johnson?
Well, that seems a distant memory now.
When Johnson won again at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, it was his third victory in the last four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. The fact that he failed to win over the first 11 races has been rendered absolutely meaningless in less than one month's span.
In getting to Victory Lane at Michigan, he won at one of the few tracks he had never before conquered and sent a clear message to all other drivers trying to prevent him from successfully defending his Cup championship and producing that historic seventh title that would tie him with Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for the most in a career.
The message from Johnson: If you didn't already come to this realization, I'm now the one to beat.
There was a sense earlier this year that perhaps NASCAR had dramatically altered its format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, its playoff system that has determined each season's champion since 2004, to give everyone else a better chance to challenge Johnson.
Johnson himself alluded to this possibility in preseason interviews but spent nary a second dwelling on it. In fact, he soon talked himself into thinking that the new elimination format for this year's Chase—when drivers will be eliminated in three rounds leading up to the season's final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway—will instead work to his advantage.
"When I look at the years we've won championships, we've won a lot of races," Johnson said during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour prior to the season. "We've won a lot of races in the Chase. If we can keep our stats like they've been, and the process we've used, this could be very good for us."
He's right. If you didn't think so before, Michigan absolutely sealed the deal.
See, Michigan was on the short list of tracks that had pretty much baffled Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus previously. Even when the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team would get the Chevrolet running right at the two-mile oval, something inevitably would go wrong to prevent them from winning.
"We've figured out every way to lose this race and today we were finally able to get it done," Johnson told Nate Ryan of USA Today.
And from his pit box during a post-race interview, according to Ryan, Knaus added, "It seems like we've had the opportunity here in the past, and with less than five laps to go, something always seemed to go wrong."
This time, Knaus played the pit strategy perfectly, pitting under green for fuel and four tires with 35 laps to go, and Johnson drove flawlessly. By the time the race ended under a long green-flag run at a track that is known for them, Johnson led by a comfortable margin.
The victory leaves only four other tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit where Johnson has never won in NASCAR's premier series: Kentucky Speedway, which he could cross off the list in two weeks; Watkins Glen International; Chicagoland Speedway; and Homestead.
Only two of those tracks are in the 10-race Chase. He's won at the other eight, and it could be argued that the only reason he's never won at Homestead is that he usually arrives there needing only a good run to secure a championship, so more often than not, he hasn't pushed himself or his team to the absolute limit.
That obviously should change this year, when four drivers will arrive at Homestead with one shot at winning it all under the new Chase format.
To recap the changes to the Chase, 16 drivers instead of what had been a field of 12 in recent years (and only 10 before that) will qualify for it. One win over the first 26 races and you're likely in; two and you definitely are. Three, like Johnson has now, and you and can already start huddling with your wily crew chief to get a jump on the rest of the competition by plotting how you'll attack the Chase tracks one by one.
Advantage: Johnson. He's the only driver with three wins, and only three others—Dale Earnhardt Jr.—Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano with two apiece—have more than one.
And none of those three have Knaus as their crew chief.
Once in the Chase this year, the combatants will enter into three elimination rounds. They are comprised of three-race segments that, for this year at least, include the Challenger Round at Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover; the second round, or Contenders Round, at Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega; and the third round, or Elimination Round, at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix.
Four Chase drivers, based on points earned during the Chase segments, will be eliminated after each round—with one caveat: If you win one race during any segment, you automatically advance to the next.
Advantage: Johnson. No one has won more Chase races at the current Chase tracks, except for Chicagoland and Homestead, than he has. And we already told you why he's likely winless at Homestead.
Plus now he's proven—again—that he's a threat to win even at the tracks where he hasn't previously.
Does anyone really think now that he won't be one of the last four drivers left standing heading into the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead? So when it comes to the Chase, who is better positioned to survive until the end and then put together that one super race devoid of mistakes that likely will claim the championship?
No one, that's who. And now everyone knows it, even if earlier they had talked themselves out of believing it.
Unless otherwise noted, all information and quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.
Joe Menzer has written two books about NASCAR and now writes about it and other sports such as golf and basketball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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