Jimmie Johnson’s first career win at Michigan on Sunday was his third victory in the past four Sprint Cup races, and Hendrick Motorsports fifth straight triumph.
Hard to believe it was only a month ago Johnson had no wins through 11 races on the season. He’s been dropped down to 9-to-5 odds at the LVH SuperBook to win the 2014 Championship.
Is Johnson just going to run away with this thing? It’s a lot tougher for him in this year’s Chase format because, if he makes it to the championship game at Homestead in the season finale, he’ll have to race three other drivers in a winner take all format. Whoever finishes best in that race among the four finalists will be crowned the champion.
Michigan was one of five tracks Johnson had never won on before Sunday. Now only four remain and Homestead is one of them.
I’m not rooting against Johnson to win his seventh championship, just trying to make a case for someone else and keep hopes alive JJ isn’t going to just roll through the entire season with ease.
Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski gave me some hope Sunday with his comments after Sunday’s race that made a lot of sense, because it was the same thing I was thinking.
“I think right now the Penske cars are probably the best when it comes to balance track to track,” Keselowski told reporters. “The Hendrick cars are probably the best where it takes power to run. These tracks (Michigan) are certainly one of those, and Kevin Harvick, his team is probably the fastest week in and week out.”
Harvick’s team uses the Hendrick engines, which helps explain why he is so good this season.
That horsepower advantage Hendrick has will mean very little this weekend on the road course at Sonoma Raceway in Northern California, where it’s more about the driver than any race on the season.
Hendrick’s Jeff Gordon is the best road course driver in NASCAR history with five wins at Sonoma and four others at Watkins Glen. However, the last time he won a road race was at Sonoma in 2006.
The No. 24 team used to spend a lot of time and effort getting the perfect set-up for the two road courses, but because it represents only two races a season, they have used most of their efforts in the garage perfecting their cars on down-force tracks, which is part of the reason why the entire Hendrick team, including Harvick’s engine, is excelling right now.
Over the past nine seasons at Sonoma there have been nine different winners. Prior to that it was the Gordon and Tony Stewart show as they combined to win seven of the previous nine. Some of the names that have won lately there aren’t typically known for their road course exploits.
We’re at the point now where we have perhaps the greatest diversity on road course racing ever seen. And we haven’t even seen road course ace Marcos Ambrose win here yet.
Ambrose is a two-time winner on the faster Watkins Glen layout, but has yet to win on the technical course at Sonoma with all its elevation changes. By no means is Sonoma too tough for Ambrose, he just hasn’t had things fall his way. Still, he’s finished eighth or better in his last five starts and is the driver to beat Sunday.
Harvick has been fast everywhere this season with his new Stewart-Haas team and there’s no reason to expect things to change this week. Harvick won at Watkins Glen in 2006 and he’s been consistently good at Sonoma with a career-best second-place finish there in 2007.
Stewart is going to win soon and the road course would be an ideal spot for him to bounce back. He’s won seven times on the roads, including twice at Sonoma. He’s been runner-up two of the past five seasons, but hasn’t won since 2005.
Clint Bowyer captured a Sonoma win in 2012 and his 9.1 average finish on the track is second only to Gordon’s 8.1 average. Look for Bowyer to run well, and there should be a wide variety of odds to choose from on him before final practices run on Friday. Qualifying is Saturday.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].