Chase finale preview: 2013 Sprint Cup is Jimmie Johnson's to lose
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- He cruised down the frontstretch at Homestead-Miami Speedway, rolling close to the finish line. The grandstands were empty on Thursday morning and Jimmie Johnson was riding on the back seat of a golf cart, but he was already sounding like a driver who is only a few laps away from winning the 2013 Sprint Cup championship. "I feel very, very comfortable right now and the stress level is low," he said to a passenger. "I'm ready to go, really ready."
If there's one thing we've learned in the last eight years about Johnson and this 1.5-mile track in the swamps of South Florida, it's this: When Johnson sounds confident in the days before the season-finale at Homestead, he always blazes to the Cup title. And barring the greatest collapse of the Chase era, which began in 2004, Johnson will capture his sixth career title on Sunday. He holds a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth and a 34-point edge over Kevin Harvick. Even if Kenseth led the most laps and took the checkered flag on Sunday, Johnson would only need to finish 23rd or better to win the championship. In other words, this Chase is essentially over.
"Anything can happen in racing, but realistically the only way we can catch Jimmie is for him to have a mechanical issue or get in a wreck," said Kenseth. "And he's just been so good at closing out these deals that it's probably going to be pretty tough for us. But we'll try to lead laps and win the race and just see what happens."
Added Harvick, "It's definitely a really, really long shot. But we'll control the things that are in our control and see how it falls."
Not only has Johnson never lost a lead in the standings at Homestead during his career, but on Sunday he'll also be driving one of his all-time favorite cars. He took the checkered flag in this number 48 Chevy at Dover (Del.) International Speedway on Sept. 29 and again at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 3. "It's just the sensation I feel in the car that makes it so special," Johnson says. "I have no idea why this car just feels better than others, but it does and it's been very fast."
How fast? At Texas, Johnson led 255 of the 334 laps and could seemingly pull away from the field whenever he so desired.
On Sunday, he merely needs to be average to claim the title. Look for him to race around his teammates at Hendrick Motorports—Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne—and be extremely conservative on track and in the pits. Because he's one of the most well-liked figures in the garage, rival drivers will no doubt give him plenty of space and won't fight him for position. Johnson has never won at Homestead in 12 starts, but he has also never been forced to charge for the checkers in this event.
"We just need to be smart with everything we do and take it moment by moment, lap by lap," Johnson said. "All I can say is I feel good."
As he should. I think Johnson seizes this championship with flair: He's my pick to win on Sunday.
Here's a look at the two other drivers with a mathematical shot at overtaking Johnson in the standings:
Over the course of the season, Kenseth has been the top driver in the series on 1.5-mile tracks. Four of his seven wins in 2013 have taken place at these intermediate-length venues, but it appears he no longer has a mechanical edge over Johnson, who left Kenseth in his wake at Texas in early November. The number 48 team also recently tested at Homestead, which should translate into additional speed for Johnson on Sunday.
Still, Kenseth should be formidable once the green flag drops. In his last eight starts here, he has one win and five finishes in the top 10. I think he'll be on Johnson's bumper for most of the 400 miles. "It's been an incredible year," Kenseth said. "It's been probably the best year of racing I've ever had."
But it hasn't been just quite good enough—in all likelihood—for Kenseth to win his second championship.
After his impressive performance in this Chase, Harvick must now be considered the best driver in the sport who hasn't won a title. Driving for a Richard Childress Racing, a team that he is leaving next week for Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick took the checkered flag last weekend at Phoenix, won in October at Kansas, and in the Chase he has seven finishes of eighth or better. If not for a 20th place run at Loudon in the second playoff race, he would likely be within striking distance of Johnson. As he stands, he'll probably finish third in the standings for the third time in his career.
"We've averaged like a 7.5 [finish] throughout the Chase," Harvick said. "We knew going in we couldn't make any mistakes because you're racing against guys that have had a great year, are capable of winning every week. So we knew when we left Loudon that we had made a big mistake."
Harvick has never won at Homestead, but statistically it's his best track on the schedule. In 12 career starts here, his average finish is 7.9. In his final race for RCR, piloting Dale Earnhardt's old car, look for Harvick to be among the leaders as the laps wind down.
But this will be Johnson's night. After he wins title No. 6, he'll be one shy of the all-time record held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. There was a question floating around the track on Thursday and Friday that will no doubt be asked repeatedly in the coming days and all next season:
Is Jimmie Johnson the greatest stock car driver of all-time? My opinion: yes.