Johnson's luck is fading, Toyota is leading the pack and more
There are concerns that Jimmie Johnson's luck has run out after his second DNF
Toyota has been a big winner recently, scoring four wins in the last six Cup races
Kurt Busch's increasing command of the spoiler makes him a contender at Dover
1. Fans have been wondering when it would happen, and fellow drivers praying for it to happen: the moment when Jimmie Johnson's luck would finally start to run out.
On the heels of J.J.'s second DNF in the last three races, is it time we send out a search party for the lucky charm Kevin Harvick claimed the four-time defending champion had been hiding in his hindquarters?
With J.J. second in the points standings, it may seem a little premature to hit the panic button, but there are concerns. After winning three of the first five races, including his first career victory at Bristol, and opening the new spoiler era with three straight top 10s, Johnson has seemingly faded, the spoiler appearing to become Bernie Lootz to his hot hand. Johnson hasn't led a lap in the last two races and crashed in two of the last three events.
What has made matters worse, is that while Johnson has drifted back, the biggest threats to his fifth-straight title have caught fire, with Denny Hamlin winning three times and Kyle Busch and Harvick each winning twice. Had the contenders not thrown down the gauntlet, would there be any concern over Johnson having a couple of bad races? It's not like he hasn't been in that situation before.
In 2007, Johnson crashed out in back-to-back races at Chicago and Indianapolis, but followed those early exits by posting 13 finishes of seventh or better over the next 16 races, including six wins. In '09, he was 30th and 36th at Talladega and Richmond, respectively, but rebounded with two wins and five more top-10s in nine races.
How will Johnson respond this time? Luck appears to have left his side, but the schedule gods are still smiling upon him. The next two tracks (Dover and Charlotte) are among J.J.'s best, having seen the No. 48 in Victory Lane a combined 11 times, and he'll be going for a third straight win at the Monster Mile on Sunday, having swept both races last season after leading 569 of 800 laps.
While Johnson has struggled and his top contenders have shown they've risen above their past limitations, the next two points races could swing Johnson from a semi-slump to reaffirming his status as NASCAR's current king.
But should Johnson and Chad Knaus fail to make up ground with the spoiler at two speedways the duo has owned, it will be difficult to keep all those pining to start on the eulogy for the Drive for Five, from putting pen to paper.
2. While we're on the subject of highs and lows since the switch to the spoiler, has there been a bigger winner than Toyota? A Camry has won in four of the last six races and three Toyota drivers are currently in Chase contention: Busch (third), Hamlin (sixth) and Martin Truex Jr. (13th). Brian Vickers posted his second top 10 in the last six races at Darlington, while David Reutimann is coming off back-to-back top-five starting spots.
But while the rest of the Toyota family is rising, the driver who at one point in the season led all Camry wheelmen in the standings has faded. After a top-10 day at Atlanta, Scott Speed sat 12th in points, but he's fallen to 26th after finishing 21st or worse in five of the last seven races, with his best finish a 16th-place at Fort Worth.
It's always worth watching how the Red Bull Racing drivers perform against fellow Toyota drivers, because as one person close to the situation told me: while the other teams work in conjunction with Toyota Racing Development engineers, Red Bull, citing its Formula One success, is adamant about working on its own. That's obviously hurting Speed, whose only outside source of information is teammate Vickers, but we all know that no driver is going to completely share every shred of info. In Speed's case, Red Bull's arrogance may be hurting him. Were the team willing to work closer with TRD, it might find out the winning combination Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing have discovered.
25: Lead lap finishes for Mark Martin in 47 career races at Dover
10: Top-10s for Martin in his past 12 races at Dover, coming with four teams
4: Martin's wins at the Monster Mile, all of which have come in the 30 races since the surface was changed from asphalt to concrete in the mid-1990s
Kurt Busch. Am I picking the wrong Busch? Maybe, considering brother Kyle's hot streak, but Shrub's best finish since winning at the Monster Mile in June 2008 is 23rd. Kurt has steadily improved with the spoiler after struggling at Martinsville (23rd) and Phoenix (35th), finishing eighth or better in the last three races, plus he has six top 10s in 19 starts at Dover.