Despite Down Season, Will Jimmie Johnson Once Again Win the Sprint Cup Chase?

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2014

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There are lots of reasons to count Jimmie Johnson out in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup that is about to commence this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

He's on track to record his fewest number of top-five finishes in a season since 2002, when at age 26 he was running his first full-time Cup season. He recently underwent a stretch of five consecutive races when he finished outside of the top 10—including four finishes of 28th or worse and two 42nd-place disasters.

His conditioning must be off, as evidenced by how he collapsed outside his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet following last Saturday night's final regular-season race at Richmond International Raceway.

Oh, and did we mention the new Chase elimination format? On the Sprint Media Tour (via Sporting News), Johnson himself wondered at first if perhaps it was put in place to mess with all the success he and crew chief Chad Knaus have had while racking up six championships since the introduction of the Chase in 2004, including last year's title.

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It's true that ol' Six Time, the defending champ, doesn't enter this Chase as the clear-cut favorite. But there really isn't one, and it would be foolish to count Johnson out.

There are far more reasons to list Johnson as a legitimate title contender—one of the favorites to advance to the final four drivers who will battle for the 2014 title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway under the new format—than there are reasons to rule him out.

There are still some doubts, of course, as expressed by Jay Pennell of Fox Sports, who wrote: "I think Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team have turned things around over the past few weeks, and I have them in my final four, but I don't know that they are as put together as in years past."

True enough, the 48 gang has displayed some vulnerabilities. But let's examine the numbers.

For starters, no one has won more races in the Chase than Johnson. And it's not even close.

In fact, let's be even more blunt: It's not even close to being close.

Johnson vs. top contenders in 2014 Chase
DriverAvg. finishWinsTop 5sTop 10sLaps ledDriver rating
Jimmie Johnson8.82456745440111.2
Jeff Gordon12.553760199798.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.821835114687.1
Brad Keselowski14.9392050685.2
Joey Logano17.3091714878.2
Source: NASCAR

Johnson has 24 career wins in 100 Chase races—meaning he has won 24 percent of the time in the Chase since it was instituted in 2004. Tony Stewart is second with 11, and he's not even part of this Chase.

After that, the next-highest career Chase-win totals belong to Carl Edwards (eight), Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth (six each). Each of these three can be ruled out as a contender for this year's title for obvious reasons, even though all are included in the 16-driver Chase field.

Edwards already has announced he's leaving Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing at season's end, so he's in a no-win, lame-duck situation.

Plus, neither the No. 99 Ford he drives for RFR nor the JGR Toyotas being driven by Hamlin or Kenseth, who have one win this season between them, have displayed the kind of speed it will take to remain competitive for long in the new Chase elimination scenario.

Line Johnson up against the drivers who figure to be his top-four challengers for the title—Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano—and even more history is piled on his mountain-high side (see accompanying chart). 

When they've had to in the past, crew chief Chad Knaus (right) and driver Jimmie Johnson have been able to think their way through tough times.
When they've had to in the past, crew chief Chad Knaus (right) and driver Jimmie Johnson have been able to think their way through tough times.Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Johnson has not only the most wins in Chase history, but also the most top-fives (56), top-10s (74) and laps led (an amazing 5,440). Of the top-five seeds in the Chase, Gordon is second in laps led with a mere 1,997 across the same 100 Chase races.

Other factors that play into Johnson's favor are having Knaus as his crew chief (no one is better at using the regular season to prepare for the Chase) and the fact that he and Knaus are chasing history. One more title would be their seventh, tying them for most all time with Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Rather than lettting the possibility of going for a record-tying number of titles be a distraction, Johnson and Knaus have to at this point let it be more of a subtle motivation. Johnson said he actually has successfully pushed it to the back of his mind most of this season.

He knows and in fact expects that to change—which says something about his mindset.

"If I get to Homestead and I have a chance and I'm one of the four, as much as I want to push that out of my mind, then I'm racing for history," Johnson told Sporting News. "It will be there and I won't be able to hide from it at that point."

Johnson also told reporters at Richmond that he figures this Chase ultimately isn't going to be all that different than previous ones—at least until the finale at Homestead.

I still feel like once we get in the Chase, the first three segments are very similar to what we've had in the past," Johnson told SB Nation. "If you're winning race and collecting a lot of points, you're going to transfer. And if you are winning races and collecting a lot of points, you're in a great position for the championship. To me, the big difference is Homestead and four drivers with the same point value going for the championship.

Oh, and as far as the dehydration issue that derailed Johnson as he stepped from his car at Richmond? Yeah, he had to cancel participating in a triathlon he had been training for the next day, but his conditioning is just fine heading into this Chase, thank you very much. Per Fox Sports, it turns out the cooling system in his helmet was just busted.

In fact, at age 38, he's still likely in better shape than most of the guys in the Chase—physically, mentally and truthfully in just about every which way it can be handicapped.

Unless otherwise noted all information was obtained firsthand.

Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report, as well as covering NASCAR as a writer/editor for Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.