NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson back in Chase hunt
October 11, 2016 3:05 AM
by Micah Roberts
We’ve got six races left in the NASCAR Sprint Cup season and two remaining during this round of 12 playoff stage until we’re left with just eight drivers.
This Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway is almost must-win situation for a couple of drivers that got the round started on the wrong foot last week just because the final race of this round next week is at the volatile Talladega Superspeedway, where drivers get knocked out of the race more than any other track on the circuit.
Sunday’s race will be the ninth of 11 on 1.5-mile tracks and the third of five in the Chase. Drivers like Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin all had finishes of 30th or worse last week at Charlotte. Harvick was listed as the Sprint Cup favorite coming into the round last week, but now because of the current situation it’s Charlotte winner Jimmie Johnson who is favored to win his seventh title.
“Johnson is favored to win just because he’s already made it through to the next round,” said Westgate SuperBook manager Ed Salmons. “But there’s no denying how fast Hendrick Motorsports has been.”
Johnson could finish dead last in the next two races and still advance just because of winning in this round. He won two of the first five races this season (Atlanta and Fontana), but hadn’t won again until Sunday – one of the largest droughts of his career and also for the Hendrick stable of four drivers. No Hendrick driver has won a race other than Johnson this year.
But something clicked for the team during a Chicagoland test session in August. They found speed and something to elevate their game above the Joe Gibbs Racing gang which has won 15 of the 30 races this year. When the actual Chicago race rolled around to kick off the Chase Sept. 18, the entire Hendrick team did well.
Johnson led the most laps (118), but settled for 12th, and the other three finished in the top-10 highlighted by Elliott’s third-place finish. Elliott also led the second most laps (75).
On their next visit to a 1.5-mile track last week at Charlotte, they duplicated what they did at Chicago except they got the win. Johnson led the most laps (155) and Elliott led the second-most with 103, although he was involved in a late accident and finished 33rd. Kasey Kahne even got into the fun with a third-place finish, his best of the season.
Kahne has been 12th or better in his last six starts overall and has the most points among all non-Chase drivers. He’s a nice long shot look this week to win at Kansas.
So will the Hendrick domination trend continue on 1.5s? It is the most current and relevant trend going right now or will Gibbs jump back into the mix? They won at the first Kansas race in May when Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr led the most laps (172) or do we see a desperate Kevin Harvick, who sits last in points after one race of this round come up with a clutch win? He won in 2013 and has been runner-up in three of the past five races there, including May.
There’s a lot to chew on, but I’m sticking with Hendrick for this race. Johnson is a three-time Kansas winner and Elliott finished ninth in his first Cup start there in May.