His car was crumpled, hissing smoke, sitting at a dead stop at Talladega Superspeedway last Sunday afternoon. If you had told Jimmie Johnson before the race that The Big One at 'Dega would rise up and get him and 24 other cars, he would have said that his title chances in 2012 would take a severe blow. But they didn't and now, with six races left in the championship, he's the clear favorite to win the Cup even though he currently trails Brad Keselowski by 14 points in the standings for one reason. Why? One reason: the schedule.
Johnson's season survived The Big One -- the multi-car wreck that Talladega is famous for producing -- because he still finished 17th at the 2.66-mile tri-oval, while Keselowski came in seventh and Denny Hamlin (currently third in the standings, 23 points back) wound up 14th. So it wasn't a great day for Johnson, but it wasn't devastating either.
"Fortunately my car I could still drive to the finish so I passed a couple of guys that were sitting there on the bottom trying to get themselves going," Johnson said. "We'll take it."
Now Johnson has reason to be confident that he'll be hoisting his sixth Cup trophy in the last seven years after the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18. Four of the six remaining races are on 1.5-mile tracks, beginning with Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Nearly every statistic known to stat-heads indicates that Johnson will be the driver to beat at these tracks. Here's a sampling:
• Of the 12 Chase drivers, Johnson has the best career average finish on all the 1.5-mile tracks the series visits (10.5). Hamlin is fifth among Chasers (13.7) while Keselowski is last (18.6).
• Of the 12 Chase drivers, Johnson has the best career average finish on the remaining 1.5-mile tracks on the schedule, which include Charlotte, Kansas, Texas, and Homestead. On these tracks Johnson's average is 10.8. Hamlin is second among Chasers (12.7) on these tracks while Keselowski is again last (18.8).
• Of the 12 Chase drivers, Johnson has the most career wins (16) on all the 1.5-mile tracks. Hamlin is seventh among Chasers (seven) while Keselowski is tied for ninth (three) with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
• Finally, of the 12 Chase drivers, Johnson has the most career wins (nine) on remaining the 1.5-mile tracks on the schedule. Hamlin is seventh (four); Keselowski is tied for eighth (one) with Earnhardt and Kevin Harvick.
Granted, as it is with stocks, past performance in NASCAR doesn't necessarily portend future results, but the statistical discrepancy between Johnson and Keselowski at these intermediate-length venues is striking. So in this three-man race for the championship -- and that's what it's become, as the fourth place driver, Kasey Kahne, trails by 36 points, which appears to be an insurmountable deficit -- Johnson appears to have a major edge.
The top four drivers in the standings are the four to watch this Saturday night at Charlotte in Chase Race No. 5:
1. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski has been the surprise driver of the Chase. He's won two of the first four races and has yet to finish outside the top 10. Now the big question is: Can he maintain this blistering pace?
Saturday night in Charlotte will set the tone for Keselowski. If he can lead some laps and pull off a top-five finish, it will show that Keselowski can run wheel-to-wheel with Johnson at a track where the five-time champ has positively dominated over the years. Keselowski's career average finish at Charlotte is 16.5, but he did come in fifth here in May.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson's 2011 Chase imploded at Charlotte. Days after appearing on the cover of SI last October in a story that I wrote, he crashed hard at Charlotte, finished 34th, and never again was a factor in the championship hunt. (For the record, Johnson doesn't believe in the SI curse, even though he was asked about it, oh, a dozen times in the days before last year's Charlotte race.)
Johnson has six career wins here and he came in 11th in the spring race. Expect Johnson to make a major move on Saturday night. He's my pick to take the checkered flag.
3. Denny Hamlin
As I've noted before, the most valuable person in NASCAR over the last year hasn't been a driver but crew chief Darian Grubb. He led Tony Stewart to the title in 2011 and this season he's reinvigorated Hamlin and the entire No. 11 team, which finished ninth in the standings last year.
So far Hamlin has led more laps in the Chase (232) than any other driver. He should be fast at Charlotte, where he finished second in May. It would surprise no one in the garage if Hamlin gains ground in the points this weekend.
4. Kasey Kahne
Kahne isn't completely out of the championship yet, but he's close. He needs a win a Saturday night and he should be formidable. Charlotte, after all, is his best track on the circuit.
Kahne has more career victories here (four) than at any other venue, including taking the checkered flag in May. In that race Kahne started seventh, led 96 of the 400 laps, and beat Hamlin to the finish line by 4.295 seconds, which is an eternity in NASCAR. If he can avoid trouble on the track and not have any mechanical issues, Kahne should be able to record a top-five run. But I don't think he'll have the speed of Johnson, who it says here will dramatically narrow the points gap between himself and Keselowski in the only night race of the Chase.