Jimmie Johnson+ACYAIw-039+ADs-s NASCAR Chase win at Martinsville makes him the inevitable title favorite
What happened on Sunday at Martinsville truly felt inevitable.
The irresistible force that is Jimmie Johnson’s pursuit of a seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship was reignited from a temporary slump a few weeks ago and is suddenly on a direct course for South Beach. And if history is any indication, there is only one way this plays out.
Johnson will soon join Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty as dynasties that defined their era in NASCAR.
There is little doubt that the sanctioning body intended to stymie Johnson’s never-ending success in the Chase for the Sprint Cup by introducing an elimination format — and it’s worked. For reasons related to both performance and bad luck, Johnson was never able to advance beyond the Round of 12 over the past two seasons.
Johnson and the No. 48 championship buzzsaw firmly put that narrative to rest over the past month by winning at Charlotte Motor Speedway to make the Round of 8. They did it again on Sunday, taking a Ridgeway Grandfather Clock en route to the Championship Four at Homestead Miami Speedway.
After two years of what could be argued as an extended fluke, the NASCAR world returned to its normal order and Johnson will be racing for that history-making crown. And while the other three combatants have yet to be decided, team owner Rick Hendrick has little doubt that his driver is already the favorite.
And why not? He had three chances to win his way into the semifinals and it only took one. He had three chances to win his way into Homstead and it only took one. This is Johnson circa 2003-2013 and that spells bad news for everyone else.
“He knows he’s got a tremendous feel right now,” Hendrick said. “He did it at Charlotte. If I’ve got to race for the win at a track like that, then I’d put my money on him. So I think all the components, engine shop, chassis shop, aero, everything is in a good place.
“Then there’s Jimmie. When all the chips are down and it’s for the seventh championship, I think he’s going to ratchet it up a notch.”
Considering that he’s the only driver currently with a RSVP to Homestead, he’s the favorite by default, but he will be joined by three equally stout competitors. Kevin Harvick has yet to miss the Championship Four in two years and won the whole thing in 2014. Kyle Busch is still eligible as the defending champion.
Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin both have previous championship race berths and could pose a threat to Johnson’s date with destiny, and he knows it too.
“We’re going to have four drivers with the same points value starting that race,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be different. There’s nothing to protect and we’re all in a tie. It’s just go out there and lay down your best work. I think that would be helpful from a stress management standpoint, thinking what could possibly happen.
“I’m going to love doing this. Honestly, I’m just thrilled to have a shot at it. That’s all you can hope for, is to just have a shot at it.”
Johnson won’t be intimidated by the moment. Six Sprint Cup trophies likely has that effect. In fact, Hendrick says he expects his driver to simply enjoy the moments leading up to Homestead.
“I think the pressure will probably build when he gets to Homestead,” Hendrick said. “But he’s been at Homestead six times and delivered so I’ll put my money on him. It’s like some teams in other sports, when they get to the playoffs, they’re hard to beat.
“Chad Knaus is this way. Jimmie is that way. They know how to race for that deal.”
There’s simply an air of inevitability about it.