A piece of debris clung to the grill of Jimmie Johnson’s car a mere 17 laps into the race at Auto Club Speedway, and for a bit, it appeared the four-time defending NASCAR champion was in some rare trouble.
As the garbage flapped off the front of his Chevrolet, the temperatures climbed to levels high enough to cause concern for Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team. It also created some wishful thinking from the championship contenders eager to see Johnson suff er a stroke of bad luck.
Alas, it wasn’t to be.
A pit stop 21 laps later gave his crew a chance to clean the grill, and Johnson set sail for a thirdplace finish. Not so for many of his challengers, who one-by-one suff ered through championshipcrippling crisis’ during Sunday’s race.
Now Johnson again sits atop the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings, and the list of drivers capable of dethroning him is dwindling. What was one of the tightest Chase in its seven year history at the start of the race — nine drivers were separated by 101 points — was blown open three hours later when the checkered flag fell.
The unraveling began with a disastrous day for Roush-Fenway Racing. Greg Biffle’s engine expired 40 laps into the race, and a week after using a win at Kansas to get back into the title hunt, his chances had blown up in a plume of white smoke.
Then teammate Carl Edwards, the strongest of the three Roush contenders, had a problem with his ignition box that sent him to the garage for repairs. He finished 34th and dropped three spots in the standings to seventh.
Matt Kenseth had a decent run most of Sunday, then his Roush engine had a late problem that sent him to a 30th-place finish.
“That probably took all three of us out for a legitimate shot in one race, so that’s really disappointing,” Kenseth said.
Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick were both flagged for speeding on pit road, drawing costly penalties that forced them to work doubletime for their top-10 finishes. Kyle Busch’s engine failed late in the race, causing him to declare his shot at the title over, and older brother, Kurt, was wrecked by David Ragan with seven laps remaining to wipe out his shot at a top-10 finish.
When the carnage was over, the field had been widened to only three drivers within 85 points of Johnson. Tony Stewart, the winner, shaved 20 points off of his deficit but sits fifth in the standings, 107 points out.
So why is it that Johnson is seemingly able to hit cruise control during the Chase and coast to title after title while his challengers suff er through a myriad of mistakes, mechanical failures and bad breaks?
The answer is complex.
To start, the 10 Chase tracks suit Johnson and his team. He’s won at nine of the 10 venues, and has a combined 30 career victories at Chase tracks.
His crew chief, Chad Knaus, has the luxury of having a team so good that making the Chase is not a question. It gives Knaus the opportunity to spend much of the “regular season” fine-tuning for the final 10-race push.
But most important, in racing, teams tend to make their own luck. Johnson is so often in a comfortable position that he and the No. 48 team can approach each race as business as usual. There’s no risk-taking, no need to get aggressive on the track, and no point in experimenting with new setups or equipment.
He’s not often in position to be racing like a mad man for a strong finish, something that cost Kurt Busch in two Chase races so far this season. Johnson doesn’t have to try to stretch a final tank of fuel to the finish line, as Stewart failed to do in the opener at New Hampshire, where he ran out while leading on the final lap.
Johnson doesn’t put himself in position for paybacks from other drivers, which happened to Kyle Busch at Kansas when David Reutimann wrecked him.
Knaus doesn’t have to make questionable pit road calls during a race in a desperate attempt to get track position, and Johnson’s rarely in the mind-frame to make something happen — thinking that often leads to speeding penalties and other driver errors.
Johnson doesn’t worry about what the other teams are doing. He and Knaus focus on their own program, and everything seems to fall into place as a result.
Now he’s got Denny Hamlin, who went from points leader two weeks ago to trailing Johnson by 36 points, on the ropes. Same with Harvick, who has been consistent in the Chase but is still 54 points out.
Hamlin, Harvick, Gordon and Stewart must be flawless over the next six races to even hang with Johnson, let alone challenge for the title.
Johnson doesn’t have to do anything. He just keeps on sailing without a worry in the world.
It’s not about luck, either. It’s about being that good.