When you’ve won five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series titles — all consecutively — you become the odds-on favorite to win another.
Add to those credentials that Jimmie Johnson tops the standings heading into the regular season’s final seven races. Johnson’s lead ballooned to 56 points on Sunday, a record since the point-per-position system was introduced in 2011.
Yet, Johnson’s domination is deceptive.
Effectively, his lead is zero. Johnson has four victories. So does sixth-ranked Matt Kenseth.
If the standings reset occurred today, Johnson and Kenseth — also a former NASCAR Sprint Cup champion — would enter the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in a 2,012 point dead heat. Each top-10 Chase qualifier receives a base of 2,000 points after Richmond’s Sept. 7 event with three bonus points added per victory.
Johnson and Kenseth are virtual locks to qualify for the Chase, 175 and 55 points, respectively, ahead of the current 11th-place driver Martin Truex Jr. So, too, are the remainder of the top seven that include Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.
Only Bowyer and Earnhardt are winless among the group.
From there, it gets interesting; very, very interesting.
Eighth through 11th positions are separated by 24 points. From 10th through 14th, the margin is seven markers. Twentieth place — Paul Menard — is just 36 points out of the top 10.
Sunday’s New Hampshire race again produced "comers" and "goers."
Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski righted the Penske Racing ship, at least for a week, using a fourth-place finish to vault from 13th to ninth. He is joined in the top 10 by Kahne, who gained two positions.
The losers were former champions Kurt Busch, ninth to 14th and Tony Stewart, 10th to 13th.
They say there are no guarantees in stock car racing.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup regular season certainly is proof of that.
Burton rallies, believes chase berth in future
No one questions Jeff Burton’s talent or commitment. The 46-year-old Virginian has won 21 times over 20 full seasons competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, finishing among the top 10 in the standings on eight occasions.
He placed third in points in 2000, capping a four-season run of top-five championship results. Burton’s most recent success in his current ride, the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, came between 2006 and 2010 when the veteran qualified for the Chase four times.
Then, disappointment. Burton ranked 20th and 19th the past two years and appeared destined for a re-run this season, flipping in and out of the top 20. Conversely, both teammates, Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard, have held positions in the top 10 in 2013. So has Kurt Busch’s Furniture Row Racing, which draws technical assistance from the Childress organization.
On Sunday, the Burton of yesteryear — a four-time New Hampshire Motor Speedway winner — reappeared. Burton ran at the front of the field for most of the afternoon to finish third for his best performance on a non-restrictor plate track since a second-place effort at Dover in the fall of 2010. He moved from 21st in the standings to 17th, matching a season-high ranking.
It gives Burton Chase Wild Card eligibility but the competitor has higher goals. With seven races remaining before the Chase lineup is set, Burton is only 25 points out of the top 10.
Burton believes Sunday’s performance is indicative of how his team will run as it continues to settle in with freshman Sprint Cup crew chief Luke Lambert and the many new faces that were added to the team in 2013.
"We have been running a lot better the last two months," said Burton. "Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we are the class of the field but we are definitely making progress and we feel like we are starting to build on something, and we understand what we’re looking for now.
"And we don’t think we are out of the Chase. I know everybody else in the world does, but we don’t. We feel like we can still do it."
Burton has victories at two of the final regular-season tracks — at Richmond in 1998 and Bristol in 2008.
Teams savor ‘extra’ week
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers will scatter to the four winds last week and enjoy their last break until the 2013 season concludes Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
There will be no vacation, however, for their teams as they prepare for one of the summer’s signature races, the July 28 Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Bigmachinerecords.com. The 400-mile event marks the 20th season the NASCAR Sprint Cup has competed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It likewise signals the beginning of ESPN/ABC television coverage of the season’s remaining 17 races including the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. ESPN, IMS Radio and SiriusXM Satellite Radio will air the Indianapolis event with live broadcasts beginning at 12 p.m. CT.
Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and current points leader Jimmie Johnson is the defending Brickyard 400 winner. Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon are the co-record holders at Indianapolis with four victories apiece.
With the battle for Chase eligibility at a boil, the Indianapolis race can be seen as pivotal. Five champions — Johnson, Gordon, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett — have won at the Brickyard in at least one of their championship seasons. NASCAR Sprint Cup champions, including NASCAR Hall of Fame member Dale Earnhardt and 2014 inductee Jarrett, have won 15 of 19 races at Indy.
Eight of among the current top 10 vying for a post-season berth have yet to win at Indianapolis — Johnson and Kevin Harvick being the exceptions.
Handicapping Remainder Of Race To The Chase
Statistically speaking, it’ll be a wildly entertaining run to Richmond, where the 12 drivers will crowned as contenders for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Who will place his or her name among those 12 drivers — that’s the question. Let’s take a look at the statistics over the remaining seven races to cull some of the favorites.
Jimmie Johnson, points leader: It’s tough to find a scenario where he doesn’t make the Chase, either as a likely top-10 driver, or a Wild Card winner. Even still, he has little to worry about. He owns the top driver rating at the next seven race tracks, with a 101.6. He also has the top average running position (11.1) and the best percentage of laps in the top 15 (73.0%).
Tony Stewart, 13th: Currently, he’s in a Wild Card spot. But looking at the upcoming allotment of races, figure on him entering — and staying — in the top 10. He has the third-best driver rating (97.7) to go along with 17 wins and 103 top-10 finishes at the next seven tracks.
Jeff Gordon, 12th: Bad luck has followed Gordon around for much of this season, but count on a swing towards positivity between now and the start of the Chase. With 28 wins, 101 top fives, 149 top 10s, an average running position of 12.0 and a Driver Rating of 97.6, the four-time champion boasts some of the top stats at the next seven tracks.
Kurt Busch, 14th: Busch, whose 31st-place finish at New Hampshire belied his actual performance (he had a driver rating of 111.2), took a big hit in the points last Sunday. But there shouldn’t be much panic from the Furniture Row Racing camp. Busch has 13 wins (fourth-most) and a Driver Rating of 91.6 at the upcoming seven tracks.
No. 55 speeds to owners chase
In the nine-year history of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the driver champion drove for the owner of car that won that season’s owner championship. All that might change this season.
If the Chase started today, the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota would make NASCAR’s "postseason" as the second Wild Card thanks to Brian Vickers’ win on Sunday at New Hampshire.
The victory snuck the No. 55 ahead of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, and into a prime Wild Card spot. The No. 55 is 13th in owner points, two points ahead of the No. 14, which also has one victory. Currently, the No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota holds the first Wild Card spot, thanks to its win at Sonoma and it’s standings position of 11th.
As far as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is concerned, it’s a supreme rarity to have a split driver-owner championship. It’s only happened twice. In 1954, Lee Petty won the driver’s championship, but Herb Thomas won the owner’s title. In 1963, Joe Weatherly won the driver’s championship, with the Wood Brothers capturing owner honors.
"One of the very first things we talked about was racing for an owner’s championship," said Ty Norris, executive vice president and general manager of Michael Waltrip Racing. "Let’s shake up the system. We’ll have multiple drivers but if we can win some races and be in a situation where we can run for an owner’s championship, that can be just as remarkable as running for a driver’s championship. So our team has rallied around that. … It’s something that we are very aware of."
The rules for the owner championship are the same as the driver’s championship. The top-10 cars in owner points are locked into Chase, with the two cars from 11th-20th with the most wins earning Wild Card berths.
Round 3: Dash4Cash
The Nationwide Insurance Dash 4 Cash (#Dash4Cash) has reached its third round in which NASCAR Nationwide Series points eligible drivers clash to earn $100,000 bonuses for their finishes. Drivers and fans alike have boasted how successful the program has been in creating an intense race-within-a-race for the extra cash in its first two rounds and that enthusiasm should carry over this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
Elliott Sadler banked the first round of Dash 4 Cash in Daytona with a third-place finish. Austin Dillon won the D4C $100,000 bonus with a third-place finish at New Hampshire last weekend.
With winning the award Dillon automatically qualifies for the next payout this Sunday at Chicagoland. He will compete against Brian Vickers, Brian Scott and Michael Annett for the bonus.
Of the four competing, Dillon has the best average finish at Chicago with a 4.5.
Championship contenders clash
Nothing bodes better for great action than a little controversy among title contenders. Regan Smith and Elliott Sadler have some unfinished business heading into Chicagoland following some tough racing this past weekend.
Championship standings leader Smith and defending race winner Sadler tangled on track in New Hampshire this past weekend. Frustrations and tempers were high following the incident and Sadler vowed in post-race remarks that Smith would not win the championship at season’s end. Smith currently holds a 24-point lead over Sadler, who is in fifth.
Smith will have more than a smoldering Sadler on his bumper. He also must contend with the other eight drivers in the top 10 in the standings nipping at No. 7 Chevrolet’s quarter panels. Smith’s points lead had grown to 58 points over second heading into Road America, just four races ago. Since then it has dwindled to five points over second-place Sam Hornish Jr. But what is even more interesting is 10th-place Parker Kligerman is only 69 points back. Smith will have to be on his game the remainder of the season to hold his lead.
If Smith’s past is any indication of how he will do this weekend at Chicago, his pursuers should enter the race with optimism. The standings leader has made three series starts at Chicago posting an average finish of 31.3.
Youth movement continues to shine
They are not able to rent a car on their own or even register for military service, but they sure can compete in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Erik Jones and Chase Elliott both have collected top-five finishes and are yet to finish outside the top 10 in seven combined starts between the two 17 year-olds this season.
Jones was offered a ride by Kyle Busch after the two competed against each other in the historic Snow Ball Derby for Late Models at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. Jones beat Busch in the 2012 event and Busch decided to give Jones an opportunity to compete in one of his trucks and the youngster has made the most of it in his first three starts.
Jones posted a pair of ninth-place finishes at Martinsville and Rockingham before pulling off his best finish to date, running second to Timothy Peters last weekend at Iowa Speedway.
Elliott is showing the consistency of a veteran despite only making four starts in the series. Elliott has yet to finish outside the top-10 in all four starts and has yet to finish lower than sixth place in all of his appearances this season. His fifth-place showing at Iowa was his third consecutive top-five finish.
The future looks bright for both drivers. Jones is next scheduled to drive for KBM when the series returns to Iowa in September, while Elliott will climb back in his truck at Bristol Motor Speedway in August.
Buescher appears to have hit stride
Despite a rough start to the 2103 season, the defending NASCAR Camping World Truck champion seems to have hit his stride. Buescher has re-entered the title conversation after his recent string of top-10 finishes.
After coming home second in a NASCAR Nationwide Series car at Daytona earlier this month, the 2012 champion backed that run up at Iowa leading laps and finishing a solid third for his third consecutive run at the front of the pack.
His recent string of solid finishes has helped the Plano, Texas native move from sixth to third in the standings, 40 points behind current leader Matt Crafton, but just two points behind second-place Jeb Burton.
Buescher is vowing to become the first driver to score back-to-back championships in the series. Three drivers have won multiple titles since the series began in 1995. Ron Hornaday Jr. leads all drivers with four titles while Jack Sprague has three and Todd Bodine counts two.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
The spotlight will be on the .5-mile Eldora Speedway in Ohio Wednesday as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series becomes NASCAR’s first national series to compete on a dirt surface since 1970. Points-eligible drivers will have a pair of challenges: some competing on a clay track for the first time and all against a number of "ringers" who make their living on such tracks. … Among anticipated "one-timers" is Scott Bloomquist, a member of the National Dirt Track Hall of Fame with more than 500 victories in a lengthy career. Wednesday’s 1-800-CARCASH Mudsummer Classic presented by CNBC Prime’s The Profit also will draw NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors Dave Blaney, Ryan Newman and Ken Schrader; 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck champion and current NASCAR Nationwide championship contender Austin Dillon and Tracy Hines, a former U.S. Auto Club Silver Crown and sprint car champion.
Westbound swing closes for NCTS
The annual western swing for the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series presented by Mobil 1 will conclude this Wednesday, July 17 at Auto Clearing Motor Speedway in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Reigning series champion D.J. Kennington is also the defending winner of the Velocity Prairie Thunder 250 presented by Bayer CropScience, which will be contested just four days after the trip began in British Columbia.
NASCAR Next driver Cameron Hayley — who is competing for the championship in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West — has joined the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series for the two-race western trip as a teammate to Kennington. A native of Calgary, B.C., Hayley made his Canadian Tire Series debut at Motorplex Speedway in his home province on July 13 and finished seventh.
The master of Motorplex, Scott Steckly drove to Victory Lane for the third time in the last four events at the half-mile oval. In other NACAR regional touring series action from the past weekend, defending NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Doug Coby made it two-in-a-row at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a victory in the Town Fair Tire 100 while NASCAR Next and Rev Racing driver Daniel Suárez captured his first NASCAR K&N Pro Series East checkered flag in the NAPA 150 at Columbus Motor Speedway.
The NASCAR Canadian Tire Series is the only touring division in action this week, but there will be plenty of NASCAR Whelen All-American Series competition on tap across North America. NASCAR Next driver Ryan Preece has a weekend tripleheader scheduled between Thompson International Speedway, Stafford Motor Speedway and Riverhead Raceway.