Jimmie Johnson: 5 Bold Predictions for the Rest of the NASCAR Season
Having won the last five NASCAR Sprint Cup championships and currently sitting in third place in the 2011 standings, it wouldn't be a reach to say Jimmie Johnson is the favorite to win the championship for the sixth straight time this season.
Hendrick Motorsports' top driver has the early-season consistency and the late-season schedule edge that make him the surest thing in sports since Lance Armstrong. Unlike Armstrong, however, Johnson is as unassuming of a champion as you will find in the era of “me, myself and I” sports stars.
Following a 28th place finish in the Coca-Cola 600, the NASCAR season is one-third of the way complete, and here are five bold predictions for the rest of Johnson's season.
He Won't Reach the Five-Win Plateau
Johnson has won at least five races in every season since his championship streak began in 2006, but that streak will come to an end this year. Despite the fact Johnson's average finish is the highest of his career through 12 races, his average start is the worst it has been since 2002.
What those stats say is that Johnson's advantage in hardware is wearing away as other teams begin to level the playing field with Hendrick Motorsports. Everybody agrees Johnson is a great driver, but his car being better than many of his top competitors has played a key role in Johnson's success.
Johnson's only win so far this season came in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega, a place he struggled over the past two years. He will likely get two or three more victories in the final two-thirds of the season, but with his average starting position five spots behind where it has been throughout the streak, he won't reach the five-win mark for the first time since 2005.
His Chase Run Won't Be as Dominant
The main reason Johnson has been able to capture the last five championships is his remarkable ability to dominate the final 10 races of the season. The schedule plays a major role in this dominance, as the tracks in the Chase for the Sprint Cup play right into Johnson's hands.
Over the past five years, here are Johnson's Chase results:
2006: 10.8 average finish, 6 top 10s, 1 win
2007: 5.0 average finish, 8 top 10s, 4 wins
2008: 5.7 average finish, 8 top 10s, 3 wins
2009: 6.8 average finish, 9 top 10s, 4 wins
2010: 6.2 average finish, 9 top 10s, 1 win
Those are amazing numbers. The fact he has finished in the top 10 in 85 percent of Chase races over the past four seasons makes it easy to see how he can be the five-time defending champion.
The problem for Johnson is as much as talent and scheduling have been reasons for his tremendous performance in the Chase, luck has played a key role as well. All it takes is a couple of races where Johnson gets caught up in a wreck, gets caught speeding on pit road or has a bad pit stop at a crucial moment to turn all the luck against him.
A High Finish No Longer Guaranteed at Martinsville
In the first three years of his championship streak, Johnson finished fourth or better in each of the six races at that track. Over his past three starts at Martinsville he hasn't been as effective though, with an average finish of 8.3.
Although the drop doesn't seem like a major one, the main threats to Johnson's throne, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, both struggle at Martinsville, making a strong Johnson finish imperative.
Martinsville is also known for a bunch of cautions caused by big wrecks. Johnson has obviously avoided these in recent years, but a lot of that is due to spending so much time in the top four. If Johnson finds himself battling for position around 10th place like in recent races at the track rather than up front, his risk of being involved in one of those wrecks goes up markedly.
His Mind Tricks Won't Work This Year
One of Johnson's biggest ploys over the past few years is attempting to put all of the pressure on his competitors. He is a very low-key guy over the first 26 races, but once it is time for the Chase, he will take every opportunity in front of the media to get into the heads of his opponents, and it has seemingly worked.
Edwards and Busch have both battled with Johnson atop the standings in recent years and will be prepared for Johnson's mental jabs. Experience, just like in any other sport, is important in NASCAR. This is especially true when it comes down to the final few races and the championship is on the line.
Having to answer questions about what Johnson said can be tough for a first-time contender, but having dealt with it in the past Edwards and Busch will deflect the pressure and likely attempt to push it back at Johnson.
He Won't Win His 6th Straight Championship
Although he appears to be in as good of shape as ever at this point in a season, Johnson just hasn't had the same feel this year. The feel of invincibility is gone. Edwards and Busch are both ready to take the next step and become a champion while guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth have all shown flashes of being contenders in 2011.
According to most sportsbooks, Johnson is the favorite or co-favorite (with Edwards) to win the Sprint Cup this season and rightfully so. To be the champion, you have to beat the champion, and until somebody can outrace Johnson in the Chase, he should be considered the lead dog. However, with his Hendrick Motorsports advantage shrinking and luck due to change, you have to think the streak is in jeopardy.
Look for Edwards to win the Sprint Cup with Johnson finishing a close second. Busch hasn't proven his ability to stay out of harm's way in the season's most important races, so due to a few hiccups he will likely finish a semi-distant third. The pressure will build on Edwards if he maintains his lead deep into the season and you can be sure Johnson will remind him of that early and often once the Chase arrives, but Edwards will prevail and provide a breathe of fresh air atop NASCARat least for one season.