HOMESTEAD, Fla. – For Jimmie Johnson, a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship is oh, so close.
The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will carry a 28-point lead – more than half a race worth of points – into Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the final race in the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Without question, the championship is Johnson’s to lose. A finish of 23rd or better – regardless of what closest rival Matt Kenseth can muster – will deliver an 11th NASCAR Sprint Cup title to team owner Rick Hendrick. Johnson can also clinch with a finish of 24th and a lap led and 25th with the most laps led.
Johnson occupies a familiar position as the championship leader entering the season finale.
He’s four-for-four, wrapping up consecutive titles in 2006-09. Johnson won his fifth and most recent championship in 2010, erasing a 15-point deficit to Denny Hamlin.
Johnson’s advantage mirrors 2009 – 108 points, or roughly 26 under the current system.
This arguably is Johnson’s best Chase: Average finish of 4.7, Average Running Position of 5.0, 29 percent of all laps led and a Driver Rating of 127.7.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Johnson didn’t spend the days following his third-place finish at Phoenix marking out space in his trophy case for another NASCAR Sprint Cup award.
“Even with a nice points lead I’m not going to take any week any differently. There’s still a lot of pressure to get the job done, and it’s no lay‑up at all,” said Johnson. “Everybody is so eager to predict the champion, but you’ve got to play the game. You’ve got to run the race and stuff happens.
“I think [NASCAR has] more variables than any pro sport out there. We have all 43 teams playing, driving, racing, all the mechanical components on the race car, pit stops, other issues on other cars that can take you out.”
Homestead-Miami Speedway isn’t one of Johnson’s better tracks, even though he’s performed well enough to take care of business during his five consecutive championship seasons. A year ago, chasing Brad Keselowski for the title, a number of different things went wrong with rear end gear failure ultimately relegating Johnson’s Chevrolet to a 36th-place finish.
None of Johnson’s 66 victories have come at the annual finale. His average finish (15.3) is just sixth-best among Chase qualifiers.
Kenseth and Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick, who trails by 34 points, can be expected to mount all-or-nothing performances. One slip on Johnson’s part can turn the race into a three-way nail-biter.
Kenseth has won once in South Florida. He’s out-pointed Johnson by more than 28 points or more twice in 2013 – at Bristol in August and Richmond in September. At Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson holds a significant edge giving up 28 points or more to Kenseth on just two of 12 occasions, 2005 and 2011.
The 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion continues to retain the theoretical tie-breaker by virtue of his seven season victories to Johnson’s six.
One bad finish – 23rd at Phoenix – virtually erased Kenseth’s role as championship favorite.
“I’m disappointed, obviously with the way our season has gone and kind of being in the championship hunt,” said Kenseth, who had finished in the top seven in seven of eight Chase races and on the lead lap throughout the post season until Phoenix. “You hope to go down to Homestead and win it on performance. Hopefully we can go down there and contend for a win.”
Harvick, likewise, can only mash the gas and hope. He’s out-pointed Johnson by 35 points in only seven of the 433 races in which they’ve competed head-to-head, once in 2013 (Michigan in August) and never at Homestead.
Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 marks the Bakersfield veteran’s 466th and final race in the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Harvick moves to Stewart-Haas Racing next season.
Obviously, he has the incentive to win – and let the points fall where they may. A fifth victory would match his season high of 2006.
Harvick is near the top of Homestead’s statistical chart: fourth-best Driver Rating (100.1), Average Running Position (10.6) and Average Green Flag Speed (162.022 mph). He’s twice finished second among five top fives and has completed all but one of 3,209 laps.
“Anything can happen,” said Harvick of Sunday’s finale. “You have to be in it to win it and (we’ve) done a good job of winning races in the Chase and we will see what happens.”