Johnson leads the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ by seven points over Brad Keselowski with two races remaining. Four times in his five championship seasons, Johnson has topped the standings after the season’s 34th race, making title No. 6 a very real possibility.
As the scene shifts to Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway – where Johnson has four victories, three in the Chase – it’s possible the California driver could clinch the championship.
Johnson must out-point Keselowski by 41 if he wins and 42 if he doesn’t while netting an additional 12 on third-place Clint Bowyer. A third consecutive Chase victory while leading the most laps is the clincher if Keselowski finishes 37th or worse and Bowyer eighth or worse if neither challenger leads a lap.
That’s the math. The reality? Considering Keselowski’s worst finish this season was 36th, nothing will be decided in the Valley of the Sun.
Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet team have some breathing room but not much – especially in light of last Sunday’s paint-scraping throw-down with Keselowski at Texas Motor Speedway. The pair traded body slams before Johnson executed the winning pass on the final, green-white-checker restart.
“The gloves are off and it’s bare-knuckle fighting,” said Johnson, talking about the race and – most likely – the road to this year’s championship.
Still, Johnson’s camp can point to one set of statistics, Keselowski’s another.
In each of the past two years, the driver ranked second entering the next-to-final race overtook the leader in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson vanquished Denny Hamlin in 2010; Tony Stewart caught Carl Edwards a year ago, prevailing on a most wins tie-breaker.
“I’d say it’s a heads-up match going into Phoenix and probably the same going into Homestead,” said Keselowski following the Texas race. “We just have to win the heads-up matches.”
Sunday’s race will be the third on the one-mile Phoenix layout since repaving and reconfiguring in mid-2011. Johnson finished fourth in the spring with Keselowski fifth. The latter finish is Keselowski’s only top five in six previous Phoenix races.
Johnson’s average Phoenix finish is 5.3 vs. Keselowski’s 22.2. It hardly would seem a fair fight.
But Texas, where Keselowski lacked a top-10 performance, was emblematic of the challenger’s maturation – and Penske Racing’s ability to race head-to-head with Hendrick Motorsports, by far the current era’s most successful organization.
Consider that Hendrick has 10 Sprint Cup titles to Penske’s none. HMS put all four cars in the Chase while Keselowski’s No. 2 Dodge has been a lone wolf. A Dodge driver hasn’t won a championship since Richard Petty in 1975. Chevrolet, meanwhile, celebrated its 700th victory in Texas and has won 36 Sprint Cup manufacturer titles.
Johnson has qualified for the post season in all nine years of the Chase era, winning 22 times. Keselowski, 28, counts just 18 Chase starts, two wins and is the least experienced among this season’s 12 qualifiers.
A classic case of David vs. Goliath, but certainly not without precedent.
Go back several decades to 1995, when Dale Earnhardt was coming off his seventh championship season and fourth in five years.
Earnhardt appeared destined to win an eighth title and break the championship deadlock he shared with Petty, NASCAR’s king.
Enter relatively untested Jeff Gordon, like Keselowski a driver in just his third full Sprint Cup season. Gordon, 26, had finished 14th the previous season and counted just two career victories.
Gordon won seven times to Earnhardt’s five as the two rivals battled down to the final race with Gordon winning his first of four championships by a margin of 34 points. The title also was the first for owner Rick Hendrick, who swept the next three championships, as well, with Terry Labonte and Gordon signaling the beginning of a dynasty.