Close Calls: Johnson looking over shoulder as title contenders inch closer

jj-chase
Photo courtesy of NASCAR Media. Credit: Justin Edmonds/NASCAR via Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, you could make book on Jimmie Johnson winning the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup ‘regular’ season championship.

That was before the Hendrick Motorsports driver posted subpar finishes at Michigan and Bristol losing a whopping 59 points in the process to current standings runner-up Clint Bowyer.

Suddenly, ‘Five Time’ is just 18 markers up on Bowyer and doesn’t quite seem to be the lock for Sprint Cup title number-six this season that many had already projected him to be.

Clearly, Johnson is still the favorite to win NASCAR’s top title in 2013, but the road seems a lot bumpier now. For lack of a better term, Johnson is in a slump. An engine failure produced a 40th-place finish at Michigan two weeks ago and Saturday, Johnson came home 36th after being caught up in a late wreck at Bristol.

For the record, Johnson was not a factor or a threat to win before falling on hard times in either the Michigan or Bristol events.

Combined with less than scintillating efforts at Pocono and Watkins Glen, Johnson – who had just two finishes of 20th or worse in the first 20 races of the season – has now averaged a 24th-place finish over four races in the past month.

Johnson could fall even more in the final two races of the regular season at Atlanta and Richmond. A multiple winner at both tracks, Johnson hasn’t fared well at either recently posting a 14th-place finishing average in the last eight races at Atlanta (last win there in 2007). Johnson also has a 14th-place finishing average at Richmond in the nine most recent events where he last won in the fall of 2008.

Is Johnson in trouble?

Could he be slipping?

Possibly.

Every team goes through slumps. This could be just a bump in the road for Johnson.

Then again, maybe not.

While Johnson has been floundering, Bowyer has been chipping away with a string of consistent performances (a 10th-place finishing average in the past four events) including a 14th- place effort at Bristol despite an early spin.

Could it be Bowyer who will deny Johnson another title this year?

Maybe.

At present, Bowyer – along with Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne -appear to be among the few threats to Johnson this season. Both drivers have shown the ability to win – Kenseth earning his series-high fifth win of the 2013 campaign in dramatic fashion over Kahne at Bristol Saturday night – and Kahne, a two-time winner this season.

The rest?

Neither Carl Edwards or Kevin Harvick have been real factors this season and won’t be in the Chase either. Ditto for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex, Jr. – all who are wallowing around just trying to lock in a top-12 Chase position in the final two weeks of the regular season.

None of them look like they have anything that could derail Johnson.

That leaves only Kyle Busch as one final threat to Johnson’s sixth title hopes. Busch, the most explosive driver in NASCAR today, has both the skill and team (Joe Gibbs Racing) to motor by Johnson, Bowyer, Kenseth and Kahne for the title.

To do just that, Busch will have to maintain his cool and racing edge, something that eludes him from time to time.

It’s not often that Johnson has a slump of any kind, but he’s definitely in one now. It’s even less often that he and Hendrick Motorsports team get caught looking over their shoulder at the competition, but after squandering a giant lead in the points over the span of just a couple of races, you know they have to be taking a peek this week heading into Atlanta.

Kahne Soft?

Kasey Kahne’s performance at Bristol Saturday has been drawing a lot criticism in the ‘fram and bam’ fan and media circles.

It seems the crash and burners are disappointed the Kahne didn’t put the bumper to Kenseth in the final laps at Bristol. Moving Kenseth out of the way may have given Kahne the win – if he didn’t crash too. Racing Kenseth clean assured Kahne of an at worst second-place Bristol finish and – better yet – a jump to eighth in the standings.

Kahne chose the latter, preferring to race ‘big picture’ rather than put his championship chances in jeopardy for a single race win.

That seems like the right move to me, especially considering Kahne raced his guts out at Bristol doing everything he could short of wrecking Kenseth to win the race.

If it were the closing laps in the final race of the season at Homestead and Kenseth and Kahne were racing for the title, you can be sure Kahne would be putting the bumper to Kenseth.

But on Saturday, Kahne used his head, raced hard and clean, took the finish he earned and deserved, and improved his championship lot.

Anyone that thinks Kahne did the wrong thing – or laughably those who have argued that he’s ‘soft’ because he didn’t move Kenseth – just doesn’t know how NASCAR racing works.

Official Update

A couple weeks ago, this column reported NASCAR would be holding meetings at Bristol to reshape its force of race day officials for the 2014 season.

That meeting was held and NASCAR – as reported earlier – unveiled a plan to cut as many as 50 officials for next year. NASCAR asked officials to ‘volunteer’ for the buyout program and – according to sources – immediately had 10-12 takers.

The rest who were offered the package were given until the weekend of September 14-15 at Chicago to review the proposal and decide if they were to opt into the program.

Meanwhile, those officials still on board in 2014 will no longer be dedicated to a specific series, but NASCAR will instead create three teams – A, B and C – and rotate them through the three main series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck.

Watch for more as this story continues to unfold in the next couple of weeks.

About John Close

John Close covered his first race as a professional media member in 1985. Since then, Close – a former Associated Press newspaper sports editor – has written countless articles for numerous motorsports magazines, trade publications and Internet sites.

His Close Calls column appears each week on www.CloseFinishes.com, www.MotorsportAmerica.com and www.RacingNation.com.

Close has also authored two books – Tony Stewart – From Indy Phenom To NASCAR Superstar and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series – From Desert Dust To Superspeedways.

Close also spotted more than 150 NASCAR Cup, Nationwide and Truck events from 1995-2008.

You can direct comments/inquiries to Close at closefinishes@carolina.rr.com.

 

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