Published on November 10th, 2009 | by Michael J Smith0
Sprint Cup Championship Not Decided Just Yet
Jimmy Johnson had to feel pretty confident going into the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway with a 184-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin. At Texas, he had posted nine top 10 finishes in 12 starts. Six of those were top 5s, and four were top 2s. With a ninth-place average finish, no one expected the team to struggle with their setup. And they didn’t.
They unloaded fast. They were in the top 10 in all three practices, including leading the final practice. They qualified 12th, which is farther back then they would have liked, but still a good starting spot, considering.
But, on lap 3, what looked to be a locked-up, fourth consecutive championship came to a crashing halt off the fender of Sam Hornish Jr’s No. 77 Dodge. Johnson got a run to the outside of Hornish. As he passed him, David Reutimann got into the back of Hornish. Hornish got loose as a result of the contact, and he got into Johnson.
It looked almost as if Johnson was going to get it saved when he turned back into Hornish, then bounced off the inside wall. The contact destroyed both sides of the car, and Johnson headed to the garage.
Mark Martin was able to capitalize on Johnson’s misfortune with his fourth place finish. Johnson finished 38th. Johnson saw his points lead cut from 184 to 73. With two races to go, that is no longer an insurmountable lead. Martin needs to gain 37 points per race more than Johnson to overcome that lead. That translates to about 13 positions, if neither is in the top 10; or about eight positions if both are inside the top 10.
The problem is that Johnson is so good at the two remaining races. He has a fifth-place average finish at Phoenix International Raceway, with two wins in the last three races there, and he has finished in the top 7 the last seven races there; the last five of those were top 5s.
Martin isn’t bad at Phoenix. Since 2002 (when Johnson entered Sprint Cup competition full time), Martin has never finished worse than 16th at Phoenix. But, he only has an average finish of 10th (compared to Johnson’s fifth). He did win the spring race there this season, but he’s finished outside the top 10 in six of the 11 races he competed in since 2002. (He only raced a partial schedule in 2008.)
At Homestead-Miami Speedway, he has an average finish of 13th, compared to Johnson’s 12th-place average finish. Neither has won at the track since 2002, and both Johnson (40th) and Martin (33rd) have one finish of 30th or worse since 2002.
Martin should feel confident heading into this race, as he won and led the most laps here earlier this year. But, Johnson finished that race in fourth. Still, if the finishes were exactly the same, Johnson would go into Homestead with a 43-point lead.
Assuming that were to happen, Johnson would need to finish fifth or better (sixth, if he leads a lap) to win the championship no matter what Martin does.
But, as Texas proved, anything can and will happen in NASCAR. So, at this point, it’s anybody’s race.