We’re at the half way point of NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship and Brad Keselowski still isn’t going away. He’s got a seven point lead over Jimmie Johnson as they head to Kansas this week, but is still listed as the third choice to win at 9-4 (+225) odds behind Johnson (+140) and Denny Hamlin (+150).
Keselowski would have liked a better finish than 11th at Charlotte last week, but he’s still got a couple of tracks on the schedule that are favorable to him. It’s no accident that Keselowski won five races this season, if you don’t want to call a couple fuel mileage victories an accident. Two of the five wins came at 1.5-mile tracks and we’ve got three of those remaining on the schedule.
We should expect him to fare well on those three, but what about Martinsville and Phoenix, two tracks that Johnson and Hamlin are at an elite level? He had career best finishes this season on both, but a ninth at Martinsville and fifth at Martinsville may not be enough to hold off what Johnson and Hamlin have done over their careers.
Hamlin is a four-time champ at Martinsville with a 6.4 average finish. Johnson is a six-time winner that has averaged a 4.3 finish over his past 20 starts. Johnson’s 12th-place finish in the spring was his worst over that stretch.
Hamlin still has 15 points to make up, but we should still consider him the favorite because of being the best suited on all five tracks coming up. He added another runner-up finish on 1.5-mile tracks at Charlotte last week and heads into Kansas having won the spring race there in April.
The only thing that Hamlin doesn’t have going for him is the championship attitude Johnson has. Johnson has won the title five times and is upset about not winning last season. He wants to win eight titles because that is the only real obtainable goal he has left to accomplish, which would pass Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most NASCAR Championships.
That psychological edge of knowing what it takes to win could send Johnson over the top. Despite Hamlin saying 2010 doesn’t linger, it still has to. His collapse at Phoenix and Homestead that season caused his 2011 season to be a major hangover, but he bounced back to win five races. Hamlin has been the most dominant on the type of tracks it takes to win a title – the 1.5’s.
Hamlin should be fortunate that Tony Stewart isn’t in the running this season. Stewart would play out Hamlin’s entire 2010 story in the press as a selling point to why he would win, like he did last season with Carl Edwards down the stretch.
Stewart was relentless with his Jedi mind tricks and Edwards didn’t say a word, just laughing and shrugging it off. He didn’t fight back and eventually finished second on a tie-breaker.
For Hamlin’s sake, hopefully Joe Gibbs words following the New Hampshire “called-shot” did some good. Hamlin doesn’t need to be calling shots or trying to psyche out anyone down the stretch because it can blow up in their face just like 2010 when both he and former crew chief Mike Ford got a little chatty to the press.
There’s something to be said in the quiet, but cool corporate attitude of Johnson. He’s all business and his results can’t be disputed. However, I still like Hamlin to win it.
We should be able to see Hamlin gain some ground this week on his 15-point deficit. The only problem will be that Johnson should be neck and neck with him. Hamlin won at Kansas in April, but Johnson finished third and he’s the track leader with a 7.9 average finish that includes two wins, the last coming in this race last season.
Greg Biffle looks like his team has some things figured out on the new aero package and should be a contender this week as well. He’s a two-time winner at Kansas and has an eighth-place average finish over his career.
Keselowski won the spring race last season, finished third in the fall and then was 11th this season. This is almost a must top-5 finish for him this week.
Martin Truex Jr. dominated the first Kansas race leading four times for 173 laps, but had some type of hiccup that slowed him with 30 laps to go. As soon as Hamlin passed him, he was back to normal.
Unlike the Atlanta race where he was leading late and a caution flew, no caution came out and the best car on the day settled for runner-up.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Contact Micah at [email protected].