It's not a done deal yet as Johnson goes for fifth straight Cup title
Jimmie Johnson isn't in the clear yet as four drivers are 107 points shy of his lead
Races at Talladega, Texas and Homestead could all prove challenging for Johnson
Danica Patrick was spun out by James Buescher's No. 11 Toyota at Fontana
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- As NASCAR's Chase for the Championship heads to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night, there are just five races left for anyone -- or anything -- to prevent Jimmie Johnson from nabbing a fifth straight Cup championship.
With four drivers within 107 points of Johnson's lead with six races left, let's take a look at five things that could keep J.J. from winning title No. 5:
1. Bad luck at tracks where he has previously excelled. When Johnson finished third in Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., it continued a streak of excellence at the 2.0-mile oval near his hometown of El Cajon. The reason Johnson has won the past four Sprint Cup titles with relative ease is that the final 10 races of the season are loaded with his best tracks. Consider his performance at three of the remaining Chase venues: He has six wins, nine top-5s and 13 top-10s in 18 starts at Charlotte; six wins, 12 top-5s and 16 top-10s in 17 races at Martinsville; and four wins, nine top-5s and 12 top-10s in 14 races at Phoenix.
Johnson is going to need to have a streak of bad luck or poor finishes at one or more of these tracks, while another driver in the Chase who is within striking distance will have to win the race to chip away at his lead. Just remember that nobody expected Chase drivers Kyle Busch or Greg Biffle to have blown engines Sunday at Fontana, and while Hendrick Motorsports engines are some of the fastest and most durable in the series, it isn't beyond reasoning (though it's highly unlikely) that mechanical failure could befall Johnson.
Other danger zones could be an on-track incident with another car, running over debris or a mistake in the pits. But with Chad Knaus calling the shots from atop the pit box, again, a slip-up would be a shock.
2. He has to continue to struggle at the three tracks left where he hasn't fared well. Johnson's performance trails off in three of the remaining six tracks. First up, on Oct. 31, is the massive Talladega Superspeedway, where Johnson has just one win, four top-5s and seven top-10 finishes in 17 starts. After that, it's off to Texas Motor Speedway, where he has one win, seven top-5s and 10 top-10 finishes in 14 starts. And the one track in the Chase where he has never won is Homestead-Miami Speedway -- site of the championship finale. At that 1.5-mile oval nestled in South Florida's swampland, Johnson has no wins, three top-5s and six top-10 finishes in nine starts.
Of those tracks, Talladega appears to be the one where Johnson could lose a significant amount of points because of the quirky nature of restrictor plate racing; a driver can go from the front to back and then to the front again throughout the race. And with the prospect of The Big One -- a massive crash -- lurking around every turn, a top driver can get taken out of a race by someone else's mistake. Last year, Johnson was fortunate when a major crash at the end of the race allowed him to finish sixth.
But for what Talladega giveth, it can also taketh away, and that is always a concern for any driver in the Chase, especially Johnson.
3. Another driver has to get on a hot streak. After running out of fuel on the last lap of the first race of the Chase, Tony Stewart was given little hope of contending for a championship as he dropped to the rear of the Chase field. But Sunday's victory allowed Stewart to move from 10th to fifth. Although he is 107 points behind Johnson, Stewart remains a viable contender and a threat to win at each of the remaining tracks. He has one win at Charlotte, two victories at Martinsville, one at Talladega, one at Texas, one at Phoenix and two at Homestead.
Don't forget about Denny Hamlin, too. He is just 36 points behind Johnson. Although he has never won at Charlotte, Hamlin has three wins in his last six races at Martinsville, including two in a row. He has seven top-5s and nine top-10 finishes in 10 Martinsville starts. He also has three top-5s at Talladega; one win, four top-5s and seven top-10 finishes in 10 starts at Texas; five top-5s in 10 starts at Phoenix; and one win and three top-5s in five races at Homestead.
Kevin Harvick is only 54 points out and led the points for most of the regular season, but he will need a victory or two to remain a contender. Though he has never driven to a Cup victory at four of the remaining ovals, Harvick has one win at Talladega and two at Phoenix.
Jeff Gordon is only 85 points out of the lead, but hasn't won a race since Texas in April 2009. A hot topic in the summer months was the prospect of a driver winning the Chase without winning a race. Little did anyone think that driver might be Gordon.
4. Crew chief Chad Knaus runs afoul of "Inspector Clouseau." Knaus is one of the most creative and innovative crew chiefs. But from time to time he ran afoul of the sport's technical regulations, including an incident in the 2006 Daytona 500 when he was ejected from the garage and subsequently suspended from competition until mid-March of that season. It mattered little to Johnson, who won the '06 Daytona 500 and two of the first three races that season with interim crew chief Darian Grubb, now Stewart's crew chief.
Since that time, Knaus has remained clean -- or at the very least is so far ahead of the NASCAR inspectors they haven't realized it yet. But if Knaus pushes the envelope too far and gets in trouble, it could affect the delicate chemistry the No 48 team has at Hendrick Motorsports.
5. Johnson's transporter gets swallowed up in a sinkhole at Charlotte Motor Speedway. As if something from an Irwin Allen disaster movie from the 1960s and 1980s (anyone remember the Poseidon Adventure, The Tower Inferno?), a massive sinkhole opened up in the middle of the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield last week. It forced construction crews to work overtime to fill the hole before it could swallow up any more property.
If NASCAR's drivers and teams can't stop Johnson from a fifth championship, maybe the sinkhole can.
Danica Patrick was having her best race of her brief Nationwide Series career when she was as high as 10th and running 13th in last Saturday's race at Fontana. That was until she drifted up the track and hit James Buescher's No. 11 Toyota.
One lap later, Buescher returned the favor, turning into Patrick's Chevrolet and crashing the driver out of the race, just a few laps short of the finish. Patrick finished 30th.
"It looked like he turned me," Patrick said. "You know, I guess that's the way it goes. As I've been saying, the fun thing about these things is that that I've got fenders. I guess I'm learning how to use them."
Although Buescher denies the act was intentional, he admitted his car was pinned between the wall and Patrick's Chevy. Patrick's crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., wasn't as kind to Buescher, however.
"It was pretty blatant," Eury said. "It's a shame you've got talent coming into the Nationwide Series like this who pulls a stunt like that so early in his career. Just like I told her, you just have to chalk it up and one day he'll have a good day."
Patrick was prepared to have a decent finish before the wreck and frankly, a decent finish at this stage of her NASCAR career would be a great day for the driver who finished the IndyCar season with a fifth-place at Twin Ring Motegi on Sept. 19 and second at Homestead on Oct. 2.
Patrick has five more NASCAR Nationwide Series races on her schedule this season including Friday night's 300-miler at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Graham Rahal says he has landed a major sponsor. Now the IndyCar driver has to find the right team that could nudge him toward Target/Chip Ganassi Racing as driver of a third car. Rahal's agent, John Caponigro, confirmed that Chip Ganassi's team is certainly one that he is talking to about giving Rahal a ride in 2011.
"You're darn right, we are talking to Ganassi," Caponigro said. "We want to get Graham on one of the top teams in the series and that team is certainly at the top of the list."
Rahal's sponsor is TBC Retail Group and has entered into a multiyear spokesperson and sponsorship association with him to represent its family of tire and automotive retail brands. Now that a sponsor is in place, they are actively negotiating with several IndyCar Series teams, including Ganassi and Rahal Letterman Racing, to place Rahal in their car.
"Again, we are talking to a lot of teams," Rahal said. "Dad's team did a good job for me at Indy, but the best thing for me to do is not be in my father's shadow. I need to do it on my own. We have not canceled anything out, but we have a lot of teams in play."
When told about the possibility of being part of a three-car team in 2011, IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti admitted he had heard the rumors, but there is nothing to substantiate it as fact.
"I really know nothing about that," Franchitti said. "Until Chip talks to me about it then there is nothing to say. Until that point it's only speculation."
Last week, longtime sponsor 7-Eleven announced that it would not return at Tony Kanaan's sponsor at Andretti Autosport. The company is being linked to NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet. But that doesn't mean Kanaan will not be on the starting grid next season. He is under contract with Andretti Autosport through 2013 and even though the team has given him permission to talk to other drivers, Andretti is working with Apex Brazil -- a conglomeration of Brazilian companies and the official ethanol supplier to the series -- to sponsor Kanaan's effort.
IZOD also informed Andretti that it will not be the primary sponsor of Ryan Hunter-Reay's No. 37 entry in 2011, but will continue to have a personal services arrangement with the American driver.
"You could have a 100-mile race, 200-, 300-, 400-, 500-, 1,000-mile race and it could come down to a fuel mileage race just because of the way cautions fall. It's that caution that puts some guys outside their window and some guys in their window, so it doesn't matter really how many miles it is, it can always end up a fuel mileage race, no matter how long or short the distance." -- Tony Stewart, winner of Sunday's 400-mile race at Fontana.
"On to another year. It's over." -- Kyle Busch, who finished 35th after his engine blew up and is now 187 points out of the Chase lead, declared that his bid at a championship is over.
"It's disappointing, but what can you do? It broke. Everybody is giving this program 110 percent, so you can't blame anybody. We were trying hard to win the title and it isn't going to happen this year." -- Greg Biffle, whose blown engine on lap 40 dropped him to a 41st-place finish, leaving him 215 points out of the Cup lead.
"This race track has struggled. I think it's been obvious that while we have a great fan base out here and I think we want to maintain that, you have to look at the sport, the whole sport and everything that's going on. When you leave Kansas Speedway and we've got an incredible crowd and just a huge group of fans are there and you look at how that race track and surrounding areas are growing ... it just makes more sense for us to be there. Whether it's the economy, whether it's this market, they can't even get an NFL franchise to work in this area. There's something about this area that is really tough when it comes to sports franchises and sports entertainment in general. I think that right now it's the right move. Hopefully we can get back to selling out this race and utilizing this market because it is a great market and then maybe one day come back and have two races." -- Jeff Gordon on Fontana losing one of its two Cup race dates in 2011.
Charlotte Motor Speedway is just 19 miles from my residence, which means no hotel rooms for me this weekend. And while both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races will be held at night, the cool, crisp autumn air will be a nice change of pace as the action heats up in the Chase.