The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ is three months and 12 races into the future, but the jockeying has begun for the No. 1 seeding when the standings are reset for the postseason.
Matt Kenseth held the advantage with three quick victories. Now he’s got a companion in fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who recorded his third win of the year on Sunday at Pocono Raceway. Each win is worth three bonus points when the Chase begins in mid-September.
The scene now shifts to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 (TNT, MRN Radio, SIRIUSXM Radio, 1 p.m. EDT), where Kenseth has won and Johnson has not.
Kenseth, a two-time Michigan winner, arguably has been the season’s fastest commodity leading 11 of 14 races. The 2003 series champion’s pace has sometimes proved too fast for his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, which has suffered two engine-related DNFs.
Kenseth’s three wins are offset by three finishes of 35th or worse. At Michigan, Kenseth boasts a Driver Rating of 105.5 – second only to last August’s winner Greg Biffle. Kenseth finished third in last year’s Quicken Loans 400.
JGR entries have won three of the past six races at Michigan. Both of Kenseth’s teammates – Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch – have Victory Lane visits in the past two seasons.
Johnson peaked early, winning the Daytona 500. Nothing’s happened over the next 13 races to suggest that’s anything but a good thing. In fact, his best vote of confidence comes from crew chief Chad Knaus following Sunday’s dominant victory.
“Jimmie and I are in a really good spot. Jimmie is switched on right now,” said Knaus. “He’s as good or better than I’ve ever seen him.”
In four of his five championship seasons, Johnson won two or more races through the first Pocono event. Johnson has finished among the top five in seven of this season’s 14 races and led a combined 271 laps in his past two starts. Michigan is one of five tracks on which Johnson has failed to win. He’ll visit the other four – Kentucky, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami – later this year.
Still, the five-time champion’s Michigan statistics are remarkable – a fourth-best Driver Rating of 104.2 and most laps led (484) over the past eight seasons. He finished second in 2011 and was fifth last June. In August, he held the lead with seven laps remaining, but the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet succumbed to engine failure.
Johnson’s HMS teammates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne claim a combined Michigan victory total of five. Earnhardt is the race’s defending winner.