Having won sixty percent of the races this year, Jimmie Johnson seems almost destined to complete his drive for five.
This is the third hottest start of his career points-wise, behind 2005 and 2006. In ’05, the team was still young and hadn’t yet learned how to close the deal. Of course, ’06 was Johnson’s first championship.
By a one race margin, this is the quickest it’s ever taken the No. 48 to win three races. In ’07, Johnson earned his third win at Martinsville, race number six.
They won a championship that year, too.
So, the question is, “Who can step up and actually beat these guys.”
It takes a team with a driver who takes care of his stuff. It takes a team with a driver who can consistently churn out top ten finishes week in and week out.
It will certainly take a team with a driver who has championship experience.
To find this team, you only need to look one spot ahead of Johnson in the points.
That’s right; I’m talking about the Jack Roush owned No. 17 Crown Royal Ford driven by the one man in the world who, I would argue, could win a NASCAR championship without actually winning a race.
Jimmie Johnson’s biggest threat is none other than 2003 Cup Champion Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth is one of only two drivers in the modern era – the other being the late Benny Parsons – who won only one race during their championship campaigns.
To start off the ’03 season, Kenseth finished fifteenth or better in 26 out of the first 28 races. That stretch included 22 top ten’s.
Consistency is what earned him the title that year. Consistency is what it will take for a driver to beat Jimmie Johnson.
Despite his three wins, Johnson sits only third in points. This is because, without his wins, Johnson and the No. 48 team have as many top ten’s as you and I do.
On the other hand, Kenseth, along with Roush teammate Greg Biffle, has failed to finish outside the top ten this year. Points leader Kevin Harvick was kicked out of this club Sunday at Bristol with an 11th place finish.
While both have been impressive this season, Harvick and Biffle have never really shown the ability to string good finishes together into a championship run. Kenseth has.
Despite NASCAR’s recent attempts to increase the influence of wins on the standings, whether by increasing the point value for a 1st place finish or creating a seeding system in the Chase based on wins, consistency will always determine the champion in the end.
During his championship run, Johnson has never ranked lower than second in top ten finishes.
On the flip side, the driver with the most wins has failed to win the championship seven out of the last ten years, and four out of the last six during the Chase era.
In other words, let’s cool down and refrain from handing Johnson a championship trophy just yet. Hot starts aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be, either. Since 1999, the first driver to win multiple races has gone on to win the season championship only twice.
Of course, both times, it was the ultimate argument destroyer, Jimmie Johnson.
Despite this, there is still plenty of evidence that the 48 team can in fact be beaten. Quietly lurking is Kenseth, the quietest lurker there is.
Over the course of his career, the driver of the No. 17 has missed the Chase for the Cup only once. Ironically, it was last season, when he started the year by uncharacteristically winning the first two races.
This year started off with what could have been considered at the time to be turmoil. Despite an 8th place finish at Daytona, then crew chief Drew Blickensderfer was released from the pit box and reassigned to Roush-Fenway Racing’s R&D department.
However, Kenseth was subsequently paired with a former champion crew chief, Todd Parrott.
Obviously, the two have enjoyed instant chemistry. In the four races since the change, Kenseth hasn’t finished worse than 7th.
Sure, it may not be three wins, but its pretty darn good. The scary thing is, he doesn’t seem to think this is the team’s full potential.
“So far this year, we’ve been able to find ways to get good finishes even when we haven’t performed good,” Kenseth said post race.
That’s what Matt Kenseth is known for: taking only what he can get out of a car, letting his crew adjust on it all day, and then he’ll bring it home in the top ten or so and move up a spot in the points.
With Todd Parrot on the box, though, it’s hard to believe he won’t make a trip to Victory Lane at some point this season.
Regardless, a few more strong finishes over the next few weeks and it will be hard to argue that Kenseth isn’t in 2003 form, which should be a frightening thought for the other teams.
Maybe even the 48.
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