Only two races into the 10-event Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, it already appears that the title might come down to a battle between Joe Gibbs Racing and five-time champ Jimmie Johnson. JGR teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have finished 1-2 in each of the first two Chase races, while Johnson has posted a pair of top-fives. As a result, there is already a bit of a gap between that trio and fourth-place Carl Edwards, who is 36 points out of the lead and 18 points behind third-place Johnson.
At first glance, this doesn't appear to be a fair fight. Johnson has not won in the 10 races since he took the checkered flag at Daytona in early July, while Kenseth and Busch have combined to win half of those 10 (three for Kenseth and two for Busch). Momentum and powerful engines are definitely on the side of the Gibbs drivers right now. As Busch confidently declared after Sunday's race, "There's a reason why we think we [JGR] are the best, and we're showing it."
But it is still way too early to write off Johnson. Because the fact is, when he was winning five consecutive championships from 2006-2010, he never held the points lead two races into the Chase. He has always come from behind, taking advantage of a series of tracks later in the Chase at which his team nearly always performs well.
Johnson's first big opportunity comes next Sunday at Dover. Johnson was won seven times in 23 career starts at the Monster Mile, and his career average finish of 9.0 at the track is second-best among all active Sprint Cup drivers. Kenseth and Busch, meanwhile, have two victories each at Dover with a career average finish near 13th place.
There will be an even greater discrepancy a week later at Kansas, where Johnson has the best average finish (7.64) of all active drivers. Kenseth (14.8) ranks 13th at the track, and Busch (22.42) is a dismal 31st. Looking further down the schedule, Johnson has the best average finish at Martinsville and Phoenix and the second-best at Charlotte and Texas (though Kenseth holds the top spot at Texas).
Jeff Gordon stated after Sunday's race that, "If Kenseth keeps doing what he's doing, it's not going to matter what anybody else does." Which is true if Kenseth wins all 10 races in the Chase, but obviously he's not going to do that. And Busch has not yet proved that he can endure the pressure of a championship run.
Johnson, on the other hand, has traditionally excelled over the final two months of the season. When he won his first championship, in 2006, he was eighth in the standings after the second race of the Chase. He finished with six straight top-10s, including a victory and four runner-ups. That was followed by six top-fives with four wins over the final eight races of 2007, six top-10s with two wins in 2008, seven top-10s with three wins in 2009, and an amazing run of nine consecutive top-10s to close out 2010.
So even though Joe Gibbs Racing appears to have the edge at the moment, Johnson doesn't sound overly concerned. "We're in a good spot," he said after the New Hampshire race. "We haven't given up too many points [to Kenseth], and we're going to one of my best race tracks next week in Dover.
"I know there are very good opportunities for us ahead. We have blinders on. Focus on what we need to do and not let the outside opinions or what goes on be a distraction for us. If we put together our best races [the rest of the way], we'll be in contention for the championship."
1. Matt Kenseth (1st previously) -- Kenseth, who won only a single race when he captured the championship in 2003 under the old pre-Chase points system, already has seven victories this season. Not only is that a career-best, it is nearly as many wins as he posted over the previous five seasons combined (eight). The move from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing seemed somewhat risky when it was announced last season, but it has absolutely revitalized Kenseth's career.
2. Kyle Busch (2nd) -- Despite posting two consecutive second-place finishes to start the Chase, Busch has dropped 11 points further behind Kenseth in the standings. After so many years of fading almost immediately once the Chase starts, it must be frustrating for Busch to finally be running well, and yet still be losing ground to the points leader.
3. Jimmie Johnson (5th) -- Johnson is making some small steps in the right direction, with back-to-back top-five finishes after an absolutely dreadful stretch heading into the Chase. Before the playoffs began, Johnson had gone six weeks without cracking the top-five.
4. Greg Biffle (unranked) -- Biffle is constantly being underrated, which is why he wasn't even in last week's Power Rankings. But his third-place finish at New Hampshire moved him back into the championship race, albeit as a long shot. And still on the horizon are Kansas, Texas and Homestead, three tracks at which he's won a total of eight times.
5. Carl Edwards (7th) -- Edwards keeps lurking, doing just enough to stay in the hunt for the title. Though he hasn't been great lately, he has been steady enough to finish no worse than 11th in six of the past eight races. But it's going to take a win or two and a bunch of top-fives for him to have a shot at the championship.
6. Kurt Busch (3rd) -- The surprise story of the season might finally be losing some steam. Busch's 13th-place finish at New Hampshire snapped a string of three consecutive top-fives and dropped him 40 points off the pace. And up next is Dover, where he has only eight top-10s in 26 career starts.
7. Kevin Harvick (4th) -- Harvick's championship hopes took a big hit with a 20th-place finish at New Hampshire. Though he is still within 39 points of Kenseth, he has only three top-10s in the past nine races and hasn't won in nearly four months.
8. Jeff Gordon (6th) -- Gordon held the lead two-thirds of the way through Sunday's race before he barely overshot his stall during a pit stop, forcing him to back up and lose valuable seconds. By the time he returned to the track, he had fallen all the way to 22nd place, and wound up finishing 15th.
9. Ryan Newman (9th) -- Newman had a pit issue on the same stop that Gordon had his problem, though Newman's wasn't the driver's fault. Newman said his car was loose, but on the ensuing pit stop, his crew went the wrong way with the chassis adjustment, making the handling even more unstable. Newman dropped to 25th before scrambling back for a 16th-place finish.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (unranked) -- Earnhardt's sixth-place finish Sunday was his 15th top-10 of the season, which is as many as Kenseth has this year. The difference is that while Kenseth has won seven times, Earnhardt remains winless and has cracked the top-five only once in the past 14 races.
Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.