With a dominant win on Sunday at Martinsville, it’s no surprise that Jimmie Johnson has overtaken Brad Keselowski for the points lead. What is surprising, however, is that his cushion is only two points, the tightest it’s ever been since the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship’s inception in 2004. In its first eight years, only two drivers have won the title despite trailing in the standings through Race 33: Jimmie Johnson (twice) and Tony Stewart (last year). And while all signs point to this being a two-horse race, Clint Bowyer sits in third, only 26 points behind Johnson, who faced the same deficit when he won his first championship in 2006 (yes, I realize the point system has changed, but work with me here). Just ask Jimmie: “Anything can happen. We could both wad it up next week and Clint Bowyer is your champion.”
Here’s a look at the power rankings as the Chase heads to Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday:
1. Jimmie Johnson (Last Week: 1) – The No. 48 was on point for 193 of the 500 laps on Sunday at Martinsville. That means Johnson was out front for 39 percent of the race. And while that doesn’t always translate to a trip to victory lane, in Johnson’s case it did – and emphatically so. Now comes Texas, a track Johnson has a 9.7 average finishing position, but just one career win, fewest of any of the 12 tracks that Mr. Five Time owns a top-10 average finish (only Kentucky and Chicago have failed to see him take the checkers.)
2. Brad Keselowski (Last Week: 2) – Bad Brad lost his points lead, but he trails by only two points because of a career-best sixth-place finish at Martinsville. He’ll need another atypical finish at Texas in order to keep pace, though, as Keselowski has failed to record a top-10 and owns a sub-par 25.2 average finishing position in eight career starts at the Great American Speedway, including a 36th earlier this season.
3. Clint Bowyer (Last Week: 4) – It was a solid day for Bowyer at Martinsville, where he led 154 laps – but in the end he had to settle for a fifth-place finish. He was able to gain a point on Keselowski, but lost eight to Johnson, making these last three races “must-wins” for the Emporia, Kan., native. In 13 career starts at Texas, Bowyer has seven top-10s, but it’s a first-career victory at the track that he’ll have his sights on this weekend.
4. Kasey Kahne (Last Week: 5) – For the second year in a row, Kahne is stepping up his game in the most pressure-packed portion of the schedule. Although he missed the Chase in 2011, Kahne finished the final 10 races with five top-fives, including a win and an average finishing position of 7.9. His best stretch came in these final three races, too, as he finished third at Texas (seventh earlier this season) last year then followed up with win at Phoenix and a seventh at Homestead. It’s a robust 29 points to make up, but Kahne could still pull it off.
5. Jeff Gordon (Last Week: 9) – A big boost up the rankings for Gordon, who, take away his 35th and 18th, would probably be sitting atop the Chase standings. Gordon raced to a solid seventh last week at Martinsville, and should be able to follow that up with a solid run at the super-fast Texas Motor Speedway, where Gordon has two straight top-10s, including a fourth-place finish back in April.
6. Denny Hamlin (Last Week: 4) – It was a frustrating day at Martinsville for Hamlin, whose skills behind the wheel couldn’t overcome an electronic failure under the hood. A favorite to win the championship when he left “The Magic Mile,” Hamlin is now all but done in his title quest. Texas could be a good spot to get back on track. Hamlin won back-to-back races there in 2010, but has since finished 15th, 20th and 12th.
7. Matt Kenseth (Last Week: 8) – You have to give it to Matty. His first three races in the Chase were abysmal, and it would have been easy for the soon-to-be-departing Kenseth the mail in his final season with Roush Fenway Racing. Instead, Kenseth has rebounded, winning two of the last four races with a pair of 14th-place finishes sprinkled in. It’s certainly been all or nothing for Kenseth, who should be checked off the “all” category this weekend at Texas, a track he has finished in the top-five four consecutive times and six of his last seven starts.
8. Martin Truex Jr. (Last Week: 6) – It’s been a rough Chase for Truex, who has cracked the top-10 four times, but outside of a second at Kansas Speedway, has never really threatened to end a five-year winless streak. Texas might be a spot where Truex could surprise some folks. He has two straight top 10s and with the title contenders likely to play it safe and point race at the scary 1.5-mile circuit, Truex could be in position to take the checkers.
9. Tony Stewart (Last Week: 7) – The No. 14 team hasn’t had the same magic this season that translated into five Chase wins and a third championship for Stewart last season. That being said, Stewart did pick up one of his five Chase wins at Texas last season and could be a threat to steal one again on Sunday.
10. Greg Biffle (Last Week: N/A) – A nice top-10 for The Biff, who despite holding the points lead after the regular season, has been an also-ran in this Chase. Biffle can salvage some face in the Chase if he’s able to win this weekend at Texas. He visited victory lane there in April and should be considered a threat again on Sunday.
Off the pace – Kevin Harvick … It’s hard to believe, but for the first time in this Chase he didn’t finish between 11th and 16th. Unfortunately, he went the wrong way and finished 32nd at Martinsville.
Top Non-Chaser – Kyle Busch … Another top-five for Rowdy, who now has three in his last four races and five top-10s in the Chase overall.