NASCAR champions don't have bad days, especially not in the Chase. The championship formula set forth by a certain five-time winner doesn't allow for that.
Auto racing is different from other sports in that regard. It being World Series season here in New England: it's possible to have a bad game in a a best-of-seven baseball series and still win. Got smoked 12-2 one night? Go win the next one tomorrow and it's all even.
That's not the case in NASCAR, where one bad day all but guarantees a driver to be one of the also-rans in the final Chase standings. Finish races, register top-fives, win with maximum points on a good day. That's the formula, and that's how Jimmie Johnson won five consecutive championships from 2006-10.
It's what the No. 48 team has done again this year, but it's not guaranteed a championship because the strategy has been just as affectively employed by another team; that being the No. 20 of Matt Kenseth.
As Texas Motor Speedway has been promoting in leading up to its race this weaken: the two drivers are deadlocked atop the standings with three races to go.
Most experts assumed Johnson would be up here, but Kenseth was much more of a question mark. He had put together a successful season with a series-leading five wins, but he had just one other top-five through the first 26 races and seemed to lack the consistency to keep up with Johnson during the Chase. Through seven Chase races, Kenseth has two wins and two other top-fives. His only finish worse than 11th was a 20th salvaged at the Wild Card of Talladega Superspeedway.
If there was such thing as a home-field advantage, Johnson definitely had the edge at tracks like New Hampshire (9.2 average finish to Kenseth's 13.4) and Martinsville (5.3 average finish to 15.3). However, if that was the case, Kenseth has essentially gone on the road to pick up points.
He won at NHMS, his first ever career win at the track (Johnson has three), and nearly picked up his first career win at Martinsville before settling for second (Johnson has won eight times there). What's more impressive is that entering New Hampshire, he had led 122 laps in 27 races, yet he earned two bonus points for most laps led with 106 in the SYLVANIA 300. He pulled off the same feat at Martinsville, where had led 169 laps in 27 races, and led 202 on Sunday to again earn two points and pull even with Johnson in the standings.
After what might shape up to be a 1-2 finish at Texas Motor Speedway, where the drivers rank first and second in average finish (Kenseth at 8.5, Johnson at 9.1), the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Phoenix. It seemed that entering Martinsville with a four-point lead, the championship was Johnson's to lose. He held a clear advantage over Kenseth because his career average finish was nearly 21 positions better when combining Martinsvillle and Phoenix.
The driver of the No. 48 has a 6.4 average finish at Phoenix with four wins, while Kenseth has a 17.2 with one win. However, after his newly found ability to navigate the short, flat tracks, it appears that Kenseth might not be at as much of a disadvantage as the stats would indicate.
In fact, based on his recent success, it could be argued that it might be Kenseth, not Johnson, who is more likely to lead the most laps and head to victory lane in the desert. That might have sounded crazy had not Kenseth nearly swept NHMS and Martinsville.
It's deadlocked, and it's anybody's guess which driver will emerge as the champion. However, after seven Chase races, one thing's for sure: Matt Kenseth has stolen the blueprints on consistency for which Jimmie Johnson was the architect. If he can better him for just three more races, Kenseth has the opportunity to beat the No. 48 for a championship by implementing the formula used by the five-time title-winning team.