Three drivers looking to close in on Johnson, keep title hopes alive

Publish date:

As the series heads to Fontana for the fourth playoff race, there are seven drivers within 85 points of Johnson. To put that into perspective, in 2004, the first year of the playoff, only two drivers faced a deficit of fewer than 100 points. There were five in '05, four in '06, two in '07 and three in '08 and '09.

Not everyone, though, is in on the parity. With NASCAR upholding his 150-point penalty, Clint Bowyer is 252 points off the lead, meaning it would take a Lazarus-like miracle to raise his chances from the dead.

But could Bowyer have company? Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth sit in that middle ground between contention and oblivion and could be in danger of falling too far behind before the playoff even hits the halfway point. Can they get back into the mix or are their hopes sinking? The Racing Fan's glad you asked. Here's a ranking of Burton, Stewart and Kenseth based on their chances of making a comeback and what to expect from them in the coming weeks.

Tony Stewart

Stewart remained stuck in 10th place after Kansas City, but he did cut 35 points off his points deficit as he finished in fourth, leading four times for a race-high 76 laps. The fact that four of the next five stops on the schedule (Fontana, Charlotte, Talladega and Fort Worth) are historically among his worst tracks, with a combined two wins in 81 starts, doesn't elicit much faith in Smoke.

But it's hard to argue with Stewart's recent performances on 1.5-mile intermediate tracks, as he has a win at Atlanta to go along with his day in K.C. Comparable tracks make up four of the last seven events in the playoff and Stewart has won on six of the upcoming tracks. Vying for the title may be a major stretch, but don't sleep on Stewart making a push with a schedule that appears tailor-made for him.

Jeff Burton

Handling issues cost Richard Childress Racing's elder statesman at Kansas as he saw a top-5 day fizzle into an 18th-place finish. He also slipped two spots in the points to ninth, but five of the final seven races are held at tracks where he has an average finish of 15.1 on better (Charlotte, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead) and he was third at Fontana earlier this season. Plus one teammate has produced a win (no matter how you want to view what happened with Bowyer, he's still your Loudon champ) and Kevin Harvick hasn't slipped, so you know the RCR speed that fueled its rebirth is still there. But despite his career stats at remaining tracks, Burton has struggled this season, coming in 32nd at Talladega, 25th at Charlotte and Phoenix, and 20th at Martinsville.

Matt Kenseth

Like his Roush Fenway Racing brethren, Kenseth thrived in Kansas, crossing the finish line six spots behind race winner Greg Biffle and one spot behind sixth-place finisher Carl Edwards. Kenseth evenled 26 laps, his most in a race all season.

The performance ended a string of six races without a single-digit finish, but the question with Kenseth is whether he can use it to recapture the consistency that defined his early season. Over the first seven races, he was outside the top-8 just once, and while he's managed consecutive top 10s two other times, he hasn't kept it going. He has a chance to make a statement this weekend at Auto Club Speedway, where he's won three times and has 12 top 10s in 17 starts. His showing at K.C. will surely be cause for hope at Camp Ford. Unfortunately, little has happened over the last three months to make me think he can make a real run, having averaged a 14.7 finish since June 20.

1 -- Sunday will mark the first 400-mile Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway. The previous 20 installments had all been 500-milers.

4 -- Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Joe Nemechek are the only drivers to have competed in every Cup event in Fontana.

18.-2 -- Denny Hamlin's average finish in nine trips to the track. It's the worst among any Chase driver.

Johnson. Call me unoriginal, but I'm taking the California Kid on his home turf. What's not to love? He has the best average start (8.7) and finish (5.5) and more wins in Fontana (five) than any other current driver. It's becoming abundantly clear that in order to end J.J.'s reign, a challenger is going to have to knock him off the hill themselves, and I just don't see that happening at a track where he's led 689 laps in the last six races.