Thursday, September 27, 2012

Contenders could be chasing Johnson after Dover

They like to call it the Monster Mile, but it just might be Jimmie Johnson's best friend.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series comes to Dover Sunday for third of its 10 races in the Chase for the Championship, the sport's version of the playoffs.
Johnson comes into the race with a one-point lead over Brad Keselowski, a seven point lead over Denny Hamlin and a 10-point lead over defending champion Tony Stewart in the championship points race. Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer are also just 15 points back.
But given the recent history of Johnson when compared to these drivers closest to the five-time champion in the points race, Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet could very well leave the Delaware track with a substantially bigger lead.
That's because Johnson has a history of dominating on the concrete one-mile oval, while those close to him in the points race have generally not been very good there lately. Now, it's not impossible to have a stinker of a race at Dover and then win the title. In fact, Stewart did that just last year when he finished 25th at Dover. However, he had to win five of the 10 Chase races, including three of the last four, to get the title, something that Stewart proved was possible, but it's definitely not likely.
Here's a look at what Johnson's challengers have done in their last five races at Dover:
Keselowski has an average finish of 17th, does not have a top 10 finish and has led two out of the last 2,000 laps there.
Hamlin has an average finish of 13th, one top five finish and like Keselowski, has led two laps in the last five races there.
Stewart has an average finish of 21.8, one top 10 finish and has not led a lap in his last five trips to Dover.
Kahne has an average finish of 19.4, with one top five and one top 10 finish and has led 24 laps.
Bowyer has an average finish of 12.2, with one top five, two top 10's and has led 29 laps.
So, unless we see a turnaround, those guys don't appear to be serious challengers for Johnson Sunday, especially when you compare their numbers to Johnson's. In his last five races at Dover, Johnson has two wins, another top five and another top 10 finish to his credit for an average finish of 5.80. But here's the big number: Johnson has led 1,069 laps in the last five races there. He also has seven career victores at Dover, tying him with Richard Petty for the most career Sprint Cup wins at the track.
Of those top challengers, maybe Kahne or Stewart have a shot to be competitive. They've each got access to the same Hendrick Motorsports team information that Johnson does and they have plenty of experience on shorter tracks from their younger racing days in the Midwest.
The rest of the Chase field is in danger of having its hopes for a title put to rest, should Johnson dominate Sunday. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is seventh in points, 26 behind, but if that gap reaches into the 30s or higher, that's going to be a lot of points to makeup since Johnson, and the other five drivers would have to have two or three bad days to fall back. That's just too much to expect.
Along with Earnhardt, the rest of the Chase field of Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth will need multiple victories and no 20-something type finishes the rest of the way to have a chance.
The numbers say Kenseth may have best shot of keeping Johnson out of Victory Lane Sunday. Kenseth has a win and three other top five finishes in his last five races at Dover for an average finish of 6.0.
But whether you're a Johnson fan or not, there's no denying the numbers are in his favor for Sunday, and quite possibly, the rest of the Chase as well.
THIS WEEK's PICKS
As we enter Week 3 of the Chase, it's usually at about this time when we starting seeing some separation of the contenders from the pretenders. So, here's a look at who should contend at Dover Sunday afternoon.
1. Jimmie Johnson. He has seven wins on the concrete mile and won the June race here earlier this year, wearing that rainbow-colored wig in Victory Lane. Wig or not, don't be surprised to see him there again late Sunday afternoon.
2. Matt Kenseth. He's one of the few drivers who have been able to challenge Johnson at Dover in recent years. He also needs a win if he wants to have any hope of contending for the title as he is in  11th place, 35 points behind Johnson.
3. Greg Biffle. Much like his Roush-Fenway teammate Kenseth, he needs a win to get back into the title picture. He's won twice at Dover, so maybe he can give it a shot.
4. Kyle Busch. He's had a frustrating year with several engine woes, then missed the Chase. But he 's still capable of winning at any of these Chase tracks.
5. Jeff Gordon. OK, so no other driver really sticks out here. However, if Gordon, who is 12th and 45 points behind Johnson, gets a win, maybe it would be the beginning of an epic comeback to get him back into the Chase title picture, just like the epic rally he had to make the Chase. He does have four career wins at Dover, though none in the last five races there.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Tony Stewart. He used to be good at Dover in his early days in the Sprint Cup cars as he has two wins there. But has struggled in recent years, including consecutive 25th place finishes in his last two races there. However, he's also known for doing the improbable, so I wouldn't count him out Sunday.
ACCOUNTABILITY GROUP
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 2 of the Chase at New Hampshire
Jimmie Johnson - 2nd. Was pretty good all day, just not as good as the winner who was ...
Denny Hamlin  - 1st. A dominating performance that put him right in the title hunt.
Tony Stewart - 7th. He didn't have his best day, but was respectable enough.
Clint Bowyer - 4th. He needed a good run to keep realistic title hopes and he did it.
Ryan Newman - 10th. Though he's not in the Chase, he fared OK at one of his best tracks.
Here's a look at my results after 28 races and 140 picks.

15  wins
46 top fives
65 top 10s
Grade for the week: A. I gave you the winner, three of the top four and five of the top 10. Wish I could do that every week.
One last thing: Among active drivers, Jeff Gordon has led the most laps at Dover at 2,291. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson has led 2,275, so he could surpass Gordon for that honor Sunday.

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