Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Chicagoland Chase Preview: Johnson Still Vegas Favorite To Win Championship

12 drivers will be battling for the 2011 Title beginning Sunday (Getty)

By Micah Roberts

Let the NASCAR playoffs begin!

The final 12 drivers are set with 10 races to go in their quest to win the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. The first track each of the drivers will attempt to conquer is Chicagoland this Sunday.

The top story coming in is the same story it’s been for the last five seasons: Who can beat Jimmie Johnson?

For the last five seasons, the answer has been no one. No matter how close anyone gets to knocking him off his throne, Johnson does just enough to be a little better.

In 2008, Carl Edwards finished fourth or better in eight of the 10 races with three wins and Johnson still found a way to win the title. Last season, Denny Hamlin was cruising to a championship but faltered in the final two races, while Johnson stayed cool and calm to win his unprecedented fifth straight championship.

Johnson has ice in his veins and is almost sub-human in that he doesn’t feel pressure like regular people do. He’s Joe Montana, Larry Bird and Reggie Jackson all rolled into one who does his best in the biggest moments.

On Monday, the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book posted Johnson as the 3-to-1 favorite to win the championship with Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon close behind at 7-to-2 odds.

Busch comes in with a three-point head start over the field with Kevin Harvick (8/1) on the basis of their four wins during the first 26 races. Gordon is three back, Matt Kenseth (10/1) is six points back and then you’ll find Johnson nine points backs along with the other drivers who won only one race this season.

Johnson could make up the nine position points easily in one race, but what’s amazing about his 2011 performance is that he only has one win on the year. Johnson has never had less than three wins in any of his nine seasons, including his rookie year in 2002. While his cars this season may not have been collectively as dominating as his previous nine years, he’s made up for the differences with his driving.

Who's got the stones to mess with Johnson?
"I’ve said all along," proclaimed Johnson, "these final 10 races, it’s its own world. When everything re-racks and the point spread is so small between first and 12th, it changes things and it’s a whole new season. It’s a clean sheet of paper and off you go.”

So who can step up and knock the King off his throne?

Who’s the driver that has enough moxie with the equipment to stand up to this silent bully?

At first glance, the top candidate looks to be Johnson’s mentor and boss, Jeff Gordon. Since winning at Pocono in race 14 of the season, he’s gone on a tear finishing in the top-10 eight times.

“I haven’t felt like this in a long time and I love the position we are in as a team,”said Gordon earlier this week. “We led the most laps at Bristol, and we led the most laps and won at Atlanta. We definitely have momentum on our side.

“I don’t feel that anybody has shown more strength than we have in the past 10 races.”

Brad Keselowski is considered somewhat of a longshot at 12-to-1, but no one is running better than him over the last seven races. He’s finished 12th or better over that span, including two wins. One of his three wins on the season came at Kansas in June, a track that will be the fourth stop in the Chase. When asked about making the Chase, he sounds like he's still piching himself to make sure this isn't a dream.

“Well, I feel like a one-year old that got his first box of crayons, you know, just amazed and happy to have ‘em," said Keselwoski in a Tuesday interview for Dodge. "It's Great! Everything is fresh, new and a lot of positive momentum. No matter what happens in the Chase, it’s still an honor to be in it.”

Kenseth and Edwards could see some success for the Ford entries just because five of the 10 Chase races are on their best type of track, the 1.5-mile facilities. Kenseth also won at Dover earlier this season which is the third stop of the playoffs.

"I’m feeling pretty good heading into Chicago this weekend, " Kenseth said Tuesday. "I feel like our performance so far this season has been good enough for us to be a contender in the Chase. With how fast our cars have been, combined with great pit stops, I feel like those factors combine to show that our performance is strong on the No. 17 team.

As always, the wild card race of the final 10 races will be at Talladega, the sixth stop on the tour. Beyond just being a volatile track that can chew any car up because of the speeds, the nature of the tandem drafting can vault just about any car to the front and leave some of the best cars with a poor finish.

When it’s all said and done in November at Miami, look for Jeff Gordon to be hoisting his fifth championship trophy and first since 2001. He is probably the most equipped to look Johnson square in the eyes and not flinch. Even though Gordon gets a piece of Johnson’s success through the cash register, he hasn’t enjoyed having his legacy in the sport be put in the past tense because of Johnson's present domination.

Jeff Gordon 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion? Maybe?
Top-5 Chase Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (7/2)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (3/1)
3) #17 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
4) #2 Brad Kieslowski (12/1)
5) #99 Carl Edwards (5/1)

Top-5 Chicagoland Finish Prediction:
1) #22 Kurt Busch (10/1)
2) #99 Carl Edwards (7/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
4) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)

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