Mark Martin couldn’t do it last year.
Carl Edwards couldn’t do it in 2008, either.
Come from behind, that is. In the six previous editions of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, no driver has ever led the points with two races to go and failed to win the championship. For Denny Hamlin, who leads Jimmie Johnson by 33 points and Kevin Harvick by 59, that’s a good omen. But it’s hardly a guarantee.
Kenseth was a mere 17 points in arrears of Johnson in 2006, the closest any Chase challenger was with two races to go, but he wound up 56 points back of Johnson at year-end. Likewise, none of the other Chasers from 2004-09 could come back in the final two races of the year.
Why hasn’t anyone done it so far? Why has it been since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992 that anyone passed the points leader in the final two races of the season to claim the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship? That remains something of a mystery.
“I’m not sure why it is,” said driver Kyle Busch. “Maybe it’s sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to make up ground and we end up costing ourselves a little bit of ground.”
“I don’t know why,” echoed Johnson, who is in the unfamiliar position of being the Chaser after leading the last four years at this point. “I certainly want to believe that it is possible to come back, especially from such a small margin that we have right now. I’m not sure why it hasn’t happened. Honestly, we had six Chases, so not a lot of time. Things can change pretty quick with only six years of having the Chase.”
Edwards, who fought valiantly but came up short against Johnson two years ago, said he thinks the challengers tend to make critical errors due to pressure.
“A lot of times in this sport, the harder you try, the worse you do,” said Edwards. “So the guy that’s leading, I believe, has a little bit of a psychological advantage, because he can step back a bit. The guy that’s chasing will sometimes maybe try a little bit too hard.”
Third-place man Harvick, in some ways, is in the easiest position right now. He’s virtually clinched third place, so he has little, if anything, to lose. Friday morning at Phoenix International Raceway, he said whoever wins will be the driver who wrests the title away from the other two.
“It’s hard to make up ground, but when you have three guys in the middle of it then you can’t – there’s no defense,” said Harvick. “I think when you get ahead then you can play a little bit of defense to be competitive or use strategy. With everything so close, it’s all offense.”
Hamlin’s come-from-behind victory in Texas last week was the benchmark, according to Harvick.
“The tone has kind of been set that anything less than probably winning a race or two in the next two weeks – you’re going to have to go take it,” he said. “I think all three teams are capable of performing. Denny did it last week – he went out and took it at the end of that race and I think over the next two weeks, it’s going to be who takes that control and there’s no room for defense. If somebody’s going to go out and win the race, you’re going to lose points. You just have to go on offense and take, take, take.”
Can Harvick or Johnson do something no one else has ever done and come from second place with two races to go in the Chase and win? One guy who’s spent a lot of time fighting him thinks Johnson can.
“I wouldn’t bet against those guys until they lose one,” said Kenseth, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion. “I wouldn’t have bet against them the last four year and I wouldn’t do it this year either until it’s over, but it’s interesting. The three guys up there are all quite different, their teams are different, their driving styles and approach, I think, are different. So in my opinion the Chase for the championship is pretty interesting this year to see which one of those three guys is gonna be on top when it’s all over next week.”
Kenseth’s teammate agrees.
“I still feel that Jimmie is the guy to beat,” said Edwards. “I know it doesn’t look that way right now, but I still feel like Jimmie and those guys are the guys to beat.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.