What a pair they were, the two most dominating drivers in NASCAR for most of the season, chatting outside of Jimmie Johnson's motor coach at Kansas Speedway in the gathering darkness last Sunday evening. A few hours earlier Johnson had authored one of the most impressive races of his Cup career, leading 197 of the 272 laps at Kansas to win his second race of the season. Carl Edwards was strong in his own right, battling back from a lap down to finish fifth.
As I recount in this week's cover story in the magazine, Edwards congratulated Johnson on his victory and then, with a sly little smile, added, "This is getting very interesting."
Yes it is. With six races left in the Chase, there are eight drivers within 20 points of Edwards, who leads the standings. Johnson, in third place, is only four points back. This is by far the closest, most compelling Chase since NASCAR chairman Brian France introduced the 10-race playoff format in 2004, but I think it's going to end in a familiar way: with Johnson winning his sixth straight title.
I spent the entire weekend embedded with the No. 48 team at Kansas, starting before the first practice on Friday and ending late on Sunday night, and I can report it was the most finely tuned, one-race team performance I've ever seen in my decade on the NASCAR beat. Put simply, Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus, the engineers and the pit crew didn't make a single glaring mistake all weekend. Indeed, in this era of great parity in NASCAR, it was something to behold.
But that's not the only reason why I believe Johnson and Co. will once again be hoisting the big trophy at Homestead. There's the matter of the remaining schedule, which sets up better for Johnson than any other Chase driver. He doesn't have a weak track left in the Chase. In fact, I think he'll take command of the points lead this Saturday night at Charlotte, where he's put up more career wins than any active driver (six) and has the lowest career average finish (10.8) of all the Chasers. Throw in the fact that Charlotte is another 1.5-mile track like Kansas, and to me it adds up to another jaw-dropping performance by the No. 48 team. J.J. is my pick to take the checkers.
Here are four other drivers that I expect to have very good nights under lights at Charlotte on Saturday:
1. Carl Edwards
I chatted with Edwards last Sunday morning at Kansas and he felt like he had a car that was capable of winning in the Heartland. He'd qualified second, was near the top of the speed charts in all the practice sessions and generally looked as fast as anyone on the track on both Friday and Saturday. But then, just moments after the green flag waved on Sunday, he knew that his setup was seriously off. The fact that he rallied from a lap down to finish fifth and grab the points lead from Kevin Harvick is a testament to Edwards' prodigious talent.
Before Sunday, I would have said that Edwards was the driver to beat on the remaining three 1.5-mile tracks. But now I think the edge has shifted to Johnson after the way he destroyed the field at Kansas. Still, these intermediate-length venues are Edwards' "bread and butter" (his words) and I expect him to finish in the top three at Charlotte.
2. Matt Kenseth
The prevailing sentiment in the garage -- and I spent, oh, about 15 hours in the garage at Kansas -- is that Kenseth could steal this championship in his quiet, unassuming way. Currently fifth in the standings and 12 points behind Edwards, Kenseth finished fourth at Kansas. And like Edwards, he excels at 1.5-mile tracks.
My hunch is that Kenseth will win at least one of the remaining six races (probably at Texas, where he took the checkers this spring) and consistently finish in the top five. So if Johnson and Edwards falter only slightly, I think Kenseth could be there at Homestead to snatch his second Cup title. On Saturday night you can go ahead and pencil in the steadiest driver in the sport for another top-five run.
3. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski is the wild card of the contenders. He came in third at Kansas and continues to show dramatic improvement every weekend he visits a track for the second time this season. Not only that, but the 27-year-old seems to get better -- and faster -- with every lap he turns. He's currently fourth in the standings (11 points behind Edwards), but he's very much alive in the title hunt. Watch him closely at Talladega next weekend, the site of his first career Cup win back in 2009.
4. Kevin Harvick
Of all the credible title contenders, Harvick seems to be generating the least buzz. Yet there he was at Kansas, where he struggled for most of the race and still managed a sixth-place finish. If Johnson had done that, scribes would have gushed about how that's how titles are won, salvaging solid points days when you're piloting a car that's sliding all over the track. Harvick, who is now second in the standings, is only one point behind Edwards.
I spent time with Harvick earlier this season, a few days before the spring race at Charlotte, and he swore to me that he didn't like that track. Then what did he do? He took the checkered flag. I don't think he'll match that effort on Saturday night -- he just doesn't seem to possess the same amount of raw speed as Johnson, Edwards, and Kenseth on the 1.5-milers -- but a top-five run certainly seems attainable, which would keep him in the thick of the battle for the Cup.