Denny Hamlin has the top seed entering the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but the driver many say he must beat lurks in his rear-view mirror as the No. 2 seed.
Jimmie Johnson is good at lurking. He has won five of the past six championships and hovers like a black cloud over others seeking NASCAR’s top prize.
Is he the favorite again, despite seeing the title nabbed by Tony Stewart last season?
“If you look at how we’ve run all year long – laps led, points gained – and throw out the restrictor-plate tracks, we’ve been probably first or second place in points earned,” Johnson said. “I think that’s fair. It doesn’t do much for us. We’ll have to go out and get the job done. But we’ll take it.”
Johnson won three times during the regular season and led 1,033 laps, the best on the circuit.
From Sunday’s opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway through the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale, Johnson and his team have a history of bringing their best cars and best performances to the game. He has a record 20 wins in the Chase.
“My experience has been when I do the best job I can and my team does, no one can beat us,” Johnson said. “I worry about what I can control within the walls of the 48 shop. I go blinders-on at this point.
“Sure, in the race I’m aware of where the Chasers are running, but the talk, the hype, whatever is going on surrounding it, it makes no difference of how you race and what goes on on the track. So I’m just focused on the track.”
He starts the Chase with his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates along for the ride.
“Our goal when the season started was to have all four in the Chase,” he said. “I’ve raced against teammates in the Chase in the past, and we’ve done it and really raised the bar on one another and drawn the best out of one another. I feel like that exists again.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is seeded seventh, Kasey Kahne 11th and Jeff Gordon 12th. Johnson owns five championships and Gordon four. Earnhardt Jr. and Kahne are seeking their first.
Johnson opens the Chase in Sunday’s GEICO 400 not only pursuing the championship but also chasing something he’s never attained – a win at Chicagoland Speedway.
It’s not like Johnson has been a bottom-of-the-barrel driver at the track, however. In 10 races there, he has five top fives and eight top 10s. He won a Nationwide Series race at the track in 2001.
Chicagoland is one of only five tracks – also Watkins Glen, Michigan, Homestead and Kentucky – where Johnson is winless.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.