It was a classic tell, that look on Jimmie Johnson's face as he climbed out of the cockpit of his No. 48 Chevy late last Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway. Many drivers in NASCAR will remain poker-faced when they're asked about what a strong race means for their immediate futures; but not Johnson, who smiled like he was holding a royal flush as he assessed his chances to win his sixth Cup title in seven years.
"It's ten long races and a lot can happen," Johnson said after he finished second to Brad Keselowski in the first race of the Chase. "The ten tracks in the Chase are great for me. I feel really good. We qualified on the pole here and led a lot of laps. I'm ready to race again right now."
After spending a good chunk of time with Johnson and his wife Chandra in Chicago in the days leading up to the Chase opener -- highlighted by a evening at the swanky bar inside the Waldorf Astoria -- I can report that he's as confident about his title chances as I've ever seen him during his string of championship performances.
There's good reason for this: Johnson, by far, has been the fastest driver in NASCAR this season, as he's led 1,205 of the 7,531 laps (16 percent), the most in the series; the driver with the second most laps led, Denny Hamlin, has paced the field 900 times (11.95 percent).
But what Johnson really feels good about is the Chase schedule, as I've mentioned many times in this space. Unlike every other driver in the playoffs, Johnson doesn't have a weak track in the Chase. And now he comes into Sunday's race at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon on a bit of a roll. He's led laps in seven of the last nine events, including a race high 172 at Chicago. At New Hampshire he's only one of two current drivers with a career average finish of 10.0 or better (Johnson's avg. is 9.9; Hamlin's is 8.5).
Add it all up and I like Johnson chances to reach Victory Lane on Sunday. In the process, it says here he'll seize the points lead from Brad Keselowski, who Johnson currently trails by three points. And if that happens, then the question for the rest of the Chase will be the same as it's been for six of the last seven years in NASCAR: Can anyone catch Jimmie?
Here are four other drivers to watch in Chase Race No. 2 on Sunday in the Granite State:
Keselowski sent a powerful statement throughout the sport with his performance at Chicago, where over the final segment of the race he was able to pull away from Johnson. "We've seen Brad on a roll all summer," Johnson says. "He's going to be a player for the entire Chase."
It sure looks that way. In the last 11 races, Keselowski, who came in fifth in the final standings last season, has ten top-10 finishes, including two victories. On Sunday he'll be piloting a brand new car that will be equipped with all the latest technological bells and whistles that Penske Racing has been developing for months, which will make this a revealing race for the current points leader. If Keselowski can lead laps and contend for the win, it will signal that Penske is right there with the heavyweights of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing in terms of team strength. If he struggles at Loudon, it could be a harbinger for the rest of the Chase. Remember: unlike every other serious contender in the playoffs, Keselowski doesn't have a teammate in the Chase.
Other than Jeff Gordon, who wrecked at Chicago and saw his title hopes crash as well, the most disappointed driver last Sunday was Hamlin. After running near the front for most of the afternoon, Hamlin headed to pit road for his final pit stop. Unfortunately for him, his gasman didn't get his tank full, and Hamlin ran out of gas on the final lap, dropping like a brick through the field and finishing 16th.
So what did Hamlin do later that night? He went on Twitter and guaranteed victory this Sunday at New Hampshire. Like Johnson, he has reason to be confident. Hamlin was fast all weekend at Chicago -- he was near the top of the speed charts in both practice sessions -- and Hamlin finished second at Loudon earlier this season. In that race, Hamlin was closing in on eventual winner Kasey Kahne over the final laps, but Hamlin simply ran out of time.
He, for one, sincerely believes that won't happen again on Sunday.
The 2011 Chase champ turned heads even before the playoffs started last Sunday, when, on pit road and with the ESPN cameras following him live, he grabbed the rear-end of Delana Harvick, the wife of his close friend Kevin Harvick. The incident has become
Stewart trails Keselowski by eight points, and even though he uncharacteristically slumped over the summer, he's starting to gain speed again -- just like he did last year when, after sputtering in July and August, seemingly came out of nowhere to win five of the ten Chase races and capture the title. His average finish in his last two races is 5.0, which is his best two-race stretch since June.
Stewart took the checkered flag at Loudon last fall and he came in 12th here in the spring. It doesn't appear that Stewart possesses the straight-line speed to stay with the likes of Johnson, Keselowski and Hamlin, but then again, it didn't appear that way last year either at this time.
This is a key race for Earnhardt. A week after finishing eighth at Chicago, Earnhardt needs a top-five run at Loudon to stay in the thick of the championship hunt. As I've written before, Earnhardt's best shot at the title will be to compile top-5s -- not wins -- and beat the competition with consistency, not pure speed. He's only 17 points behind Keselowski, but he needs to keep the leaders within close range. Earnhardt, with only one victory in 2012, hasn't shown that he's capable of winning two or three of the last nine races, which is what many drivers believe is what it will take to win the title (though I don't agree).
Earnhardt's career average finish at New Hampshire is only 16.2 and he hasn't led a lap here in his last seven starts, but he did come in fourth at the 1.058-mile oval earlier this season. If he can pull off a similar result on Sunday, he'll be happy.