Raw speed makes Johnson Chase favorite

Last season’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup came down to a final-race, down-to-the-closing-lap battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Stewart won the title in unprecedented fashion: a tiebreaker over Edwards.

Jimmie Johnson

JohnsonNot pictured in that thrilling finish was Jimmie Johnson, who finished a career-worst sixth in the points. But if the first 26 races of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season are any indication, Johnson will be right in the midst of the title chase because he’s been showing more speed than any driver this season. That’s best shown by looking at how he’s distanced himself from the field in fastest laps run.

Fastest laps run is a measure of who is the fastest driver on the track on every green-flag lap. This season, Johnson has been the fastest driver on more than 12 percent of all laps. The next highest is Denny Hamlin, at 8 percent. However, Hamlin has turned his speed into four wins, Johnson has three.

Johnson also has the advantage of driving for the fastest team, Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson’s teammates Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rank third, fourth and sixth, respectively.

Dating back to 2006, when NASCAR began tracking the statistic over the course of the season, only two drivers have finished a season running more than 12 percent of the total fastest laps run: Johnson at 14.8 percent in 2009, and Edwards at 12.1 in 2008. Edwards finished second that season to Johnson in the points.

Highest Pct of Fastest Laps Run
Sprint Cup Series This Season

Although Johnson’s three wins this season aren’t eye-popping, his consistency has been taken up a notch. Johnson enters the 2012 Chase with 12 top-five finishes, the most he’s had entering the Chase since 2007.

He also has 17 top-10 finishes in 26 races entering the Chase. The only time he’s had more at this point since the Chase began in 2004 was 2006, when he had 18 top-10 finishes en route to the first of five consecutive championships.

Not only has Johnson been fast this season, but he’s also been tough to pass. In the first 26 races, Johnson was passed 1,479 times under the green flag on the racetrack; that seems like a high number until you consider that it’s 238 fewer than any other driver.

Johnson also has a +202 green-flag pass differential this season, simply meaning he’s passed drivers 202 more times than he’s been passed on the track. Only three other drivers are even over +100 this season and Johnson is 65 spots ahead of second-closest driver, Tony Stewart, who’s at a +137.

The Chase schedule also sets up very well for Johnson. Half of the 10 races will be held at 1.5-mile tracks, including Sunday’s opener at Chicago (1 ET on ESPN). In Sprint Cup Series history, no driver has won more at these tracks than Johnson, with 16 victories in 106 career starts.