Jimmie Johnson finding his Chase groove

September, 8, 2011

Since 1980, we've run only two races on a Tuesday. In 2007, for Kurt Busch's win at Michigan, I didn't have a blog. This time, I do have a blog, and a splendid one at that.

But given the short turnaround between a Tuesday race and a Saturday night cutoff race for the Chase, a special-edition combo blog is necessary. Never again (for this week) will you have to choose between my prerace blog and my postrace blog!

We have no shortage of awesome notes coming out of Atlanta, but since I've talked at length about the wild-card race -- and I'll get to Jeff Gordon in a bit -- I'd like to quickly touch on Jimmie Johnson.

I know he has only one win this season, and in each of his previous five championship seasons he had at least three wins at this point in the season. But Johnson already has displayed the consistency that has become his trademark during the Chase.

His 9.8 average finish is his best mark since his inaugural title year of 2006. And he's leading in points with one race to go until the Chase, something he didn't do in any of his championship years.

So, don't let the one win fool you -- this could be Johnson's strongest year to date.

Looking back

You might've heard that Tuesday was Jeff Gordon's 85th career Cup series win, something only a couple of legends, Richard Petty and David Pearson, have also accomplished.

What's remarkable is that these three hit their marks in different fashions. Petty, for example, got many of his wins before the modern era, in seasons when there were 50 or more races a year. Most would not run every week, but Petty would, and often beat fields that he simply outclassed.

Pearson ran for the championship only four times, and won the title in three of those. He spent the bulk of his strong years running for the Wood Brothers, picking and choosing which races to run.

Gordon got his wins in a totally different era, one in which drivers run the full season, and one in which the fields are more equal.

That being said, Petty reached 85 wins in his 411th race, Pearson did it in his 430th, while Gordon's 85th win came in his 642nd race. Number of starts aside, those three drivers took different paths to reach 85.

Looking ahead

Now we move to Richmond for the pre-Chase finale, with nine of the 12 Chase spots locked up. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart just need to come home with a good, but not great, finish to clinch.

Denny Hamlin sits in the second wild-card spot and seems to have a lock on a berth unless there's an unlikely winner at Richmond. But I think Hamlin could be the guy to get that second win. He's won this race the past two years and has run the most fastest laps and led nearly 27 percent of total laps dating to 2005. His average finish in that span is a 7.5, but it should be even better. His average running position is a nifty 5.2, and his average midrace position is a 2.5.

Plus, Gibbs drivers have won the past five Richmond races, between Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

The Eliminator: Richmond

Most people just pick winners -- some by hunches, some by stats, and some by just picking names off the top of their heads. I don't pick winners; I pick losers. I'll make my race pick by telling you why all but one driver in the field just can't win.

1. The last six September Richmond winners had won earlier in the season (32 eliminated, 14 left).

2. The last 12 Richmond winners came from the top 10 in points (six eliminated, eight remaining).

3. The last five and seven of the past eight Richmond winners finished in the top 15 in the previous Richmond race (four eliminated, four remaining).

4. The last six Richmond winners finished in the top three in the prior year's race (two eliminated, two remaining).

5. The last three Sprint Cup Series race winners finished in the top three in the previous week's race (one eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Jimmie Johnson.

Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.



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