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So the Chase Is Settled, Eh? Not Quite

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IOctober 6, 2009

KANSAS CITY, KS - OCTOBER 03:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's/KOBALT Tools Chevrolet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Price Chopper 400 presented by Kraft Foods at the Kansas Speedway on October 3, 2009 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

It seems like a grand majority of NASCAR fans and pundits are convinced that Jimmie Johnson is well on his way to an inevitable fourth consecutive championship.

Tony Stewart may have won the race at Kansas on Sunday, but Johnson still appears to have the upper hand in the war. He may have lost eight points on leader Mark Martin, finishing ninth to Martin's seventh, but Johnson's car was better throughout most of the race. He led 42 more laps than "The Kid" and finished with a driver rating nearly 18 points better than Martin's.

Remember, Kansas was the race last year after which Johnson claimed the points lead for good, extending a gap over Carl Edwards that the affable Aflac spokesman found insurmountable.

With the gap between first and second so tight, and given Johnson's history in past Chases (three consecutive championships under the Chase format, suggesting he may go down as the format's greatest driver ever), plenty of people, me included, expected Johnson to claim the lead and start running away down the stretch.

And yet it didn't happen.

Perhaps we've just postponed the inevitable. Perhaps Johnson will just pass Martin for the points lead at California, a track which he dominates (6.2 career average finish in 13 starts, with three wins).

Perhaps those eight points won't matter the same way that they did in 2004, when Kurt Busch won a championship over Johnson by that very same margin, or at Richmond, when Brian Vickers made it into the Chase by scoring eight more over the course of the season than Kyle Busch did.

Keep in mind, too, that last year's Chase run was not at all like Johnson's first two championships. In 2006, he didn't claim the lead until eight races into the playoffs, in the Dickies 500 at Texas.

In 2007, Johnson and Jeff Gordon started out fairly evenly matched. When Johnson claimed the points lead at Kansas, the gap was only six points. He lost it the next weekend, and didn't reclaim it again until Texas.

In other words, last year was an outlier. Johnson can easily repeat his 2006 and 2007 performances, claiming the points lead late after the other drivers make mistakes.

Sure, Martin could have done better than a seventh at Kansas to open a larger gap over Johnson. And simply beating the 48 team every weekend won't win them a championship—not with Stewart and Juan Montoya as strong as they are. This isn't a two-horse race between Johnson and Martin, as it was with Johnson and Edwards a year ago.

If Johnson couldn't seize an easy opportunity to pace the field at Kansas, however, he might be human after all. Hold your horses, cynics—this Chase ain't settled yet.

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