Jimmie Johnson is home free for his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup title, according to updated odds posted at the LVH Super Book where he’s is an overwhelming 1-to-3 favorite over second place Matt Kenseth (2/1).
Four races still remain before the champion is crowned and Johnson is sitting atop the standings for the first time during the Chase with a slim 4-point lead.
Last week at Talladega, Johnson was able to lead the most laps while finishing 13th and gained his separation in points when Kenseth finished 20th. Talladega was a wild card where anything can happen, but Kenseth can’t be happy with his finish. He was running up front most of the race, and to finish that poorly without wrecking will be the race Kenseth points to as the one where he lost the championship if Johnson should be holding the big trophy next month.
Johnson’s trophy case may have had to been expanded just because of all his Martinsville trophies. They don’t hand out normal trophies for winning races there. No, they have the tradition of giving out giant grandfather clocks to the winner. In the first race held there in April, Johnson took home his eighth grand-daddy clock, the most among all active drivers.
It’s this week’s race at Martinsville that is the key component in Johnson being such a large favorite despite having such a small point lead. Johnson has dominated Martinsville like no one else in the series while the half-mile flat track hasn’t necessarily been Kenseth’s best. In 27 Martinsville starts, Kenseth doesn’t have a win and has finished in the top-5 only three times.
For Johnson, this isn’t a place like Charlotte where most of his wins came seven to eight years ago, and is shadow of his former self there. He is currently on his dominant Martinsville streak winning the past two races there. In April, he led five times for a race high 346 laps.
Ironically, Kenseth had one of his better runs at Martinsville, leading three times for 96 laps, but settled for a 14th-place finish. It was Johnson who passed Kenseth with 37 laps to go to take the lead for good.
Jeff Gordon’s 14th-place finish at Talladega last week didn’t do him any favor in the Chase. He’s fifth-place in the standings, 36 points behind Johnson, and the LVH has him 30-1 to win his fifth Sprint Cup title. If Johnson should slip for whatever reason at Martinsville – chances are slim – Gordon will be the driver to benefit most because he’s sure to be within the top-5 like he is every race.
Gordon has seven wins at Martinsville, the last coming in a 2005 sweep, just before his teammate Johnson started hogging all the wins. In his last 20 starts, he’s averaged a fifth-place finish, second only to Johnson’s sick 3.7 average. In 41 career starts, Gordon has 24 top-5 finishes. Is it really that easy? As Kenseth can attest to, it really isn’t that easy.
The closest driver near the same plateau as Johnson and Gordon at Martinsville is Virginia native Denny Hamlin who will be going for his fifth grandfather clock. Hamlin missed the first race held at Martinsville due to a broken back caused by a payback hit at Fontana by Joey Logano.
When Hamlin initially came back after missing four races, he looked as though he hadn’t missed a beat by finishing second at Darlington on May 11 and fourth at Charlotte on May 26, but those would be his last top-5 finishes of the season, a span of 20 races coming into this week.
Hamlin didn’t forget how to drive fast over that span, it’s more a matter of the team using his car as a test dummy for Toyota since he his season finish has no bearing on anything. But things might be different this week as the Joe Gibbs Racing team tries to figure out a way to make Kenseth better at Martinsville.
While that will be hard to do, JGR could benefit themselves greatly by keeping Johnson from winning and gaining maximum points by giving Hamlin a real car this week. If Hamlin has the goods, he could lead the most laps and get the win, which indirectly would help Kenseth.
I’ll buy that scenario and roll with Hamlin.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].