Ultimately, there’s a good chance that Johnson will establish himself as the greatest driver in NASCAR history. And the guys he’s knocked off to win those titles are a pretty impressive lot as well.
In the seven editions of the Chase, Johnson has his five titles, a second-place finish in 2004 and a fifth in ’05. That makes his average points finish over the last seven years 1.71. Obviously, no one else has even come close to that mark. That said, nine other drivers since 2004 have averaged finishing in the top 10 in the final NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings. They are:
2. JEFF GORDON, average points finish since 2004, 5.86 — Had he not recommended to Rick Hendrick that Hendrick hire the then-unknown Johnson in 2001, Gordon might already be approaching the record seven Cup championships that Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt set.
Gordon has made the Chase six times in seven seasons, with best finishes of second in 2007 and third in ’04 and ’09. His worst points finish over the last seven years was 11th in 2005, the one year he missed the Chase.
3. DENNY HAMLIN, 6.00 — Although he didn’t start racing in the Sprint Cup Series full time until 2006, Hamlin’s five seasons have certainly been impressive. He already has posted three top-five points finishes: Third in ’06, fifth last year and second this season.
Still, like Gordon in 2007, Hamlin’s 2010 season ended with a lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda, as he appeared to have had the championship in hand before faltering in the final two races of the year.
4. MARK MARTIN, 6.40 — The ageless one carries something of an asterisk here: In 2007-08, he raced only part-time schedules for Ginn Racing and DEI. But in the five full-time schedules he’s run since 2004, only once has Martin missed the Chase. He was runner-up last year and fourth in both 2004 and ’05.
5. TONY STEWART, 6.57 — The last man not named Johnson to win the Sprint Cup title, Stewart took the 2005 title in a tight race that came down to the last race of the season. In the other six editions of the Chase, Stewart has finished between sixth and 11th each year.
6. CARL EDWARDS, 6.83 — When he’s good, the smiling Missouri native is very, very good: Edwards was second in points in 2008, third in ’05 and fourth this past season. His two consecutive victories to end the 2010 season give him some momentum heading into next year. In 2008, he won a series-high nine races.
7. MATT KENSETH, 7.29 — The 2003 Sprint Cup champion and 2006 runner-up had disappointing finishes of 11th and 14th in 2008-09, but he rebounded in 2010, ending the year strong to finish fifth in points. Some believe that Kenseth’s dominating ’03 season, when he took the points lead in the spring Atlanta race and never again trailed, was why the Chase came to be in the first place.
8. GREG BIFFLE, 8.85 — In 2005, a loose wheel at Texas cost Biffle the chance to be the first driver in history to win championships in the NASCAR Camping World Truck, Nationwide and Sprint Cup series. He finished second that year, 35 points behind Stewart. In the last three years, Biffle has finished no worse than seventh in points.
9. KURT BUSCH, 9.57 — The inaugural Chase winner in 2004 when he drove for Roush Fenway Racing, Busch has only finished better than 10th twice since then — seventh in 2007 and fourth in ’09 behind a trio of Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Busch’s most hated rivals.
10. KEVIN HARVICK, 9.71 — Twice in the last three seasons, Harvick has finished in the top five in points. He was fourth in 2008 and a very close third this season. His only other top-five points finish came in 2006, when he was also fourth. In the other four Chase editions, he was 10th or worse each time.
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.