My friend Monte Dutton, who is one of the best or probably was one of the best writers on the NASCAR beat, tweeted Saturday night that unlike normal races, the format actually seems to encourage all hell breaking loose UNTIL the end. That was the case on Saturday. There was a lot of good racing and lots of rubbing, but in retrospect, we should have known what was going to happen. The first four 20-lap segments proved one thing—if you got up front, you were going to be there at the end. No matter what NASCAR has tried to do with this Gen 6 car, the dreaded aero-push still exists. So, whenever Kyle or Kurt or Jimmie got in front, they were off to the races. One by one, they got the lead and couldn’t be headed in each segment.
It seems to only happen on the 1.5-mile tracks, or maybe it’s my imagination, but at different times it seemed that Kurt or Kyle, or even Carl or Kasey had the best, almost unbeatable car. In the end, it was the guy who led last, and that was Jimmie Johnson who drove into the sunset, as usual. Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, have all this figured out. No matter where you start, get to the front late and drive away. They constantly outsmart most teams, which is better than having a great driver which is not to discredit Jimmie Johnson. He is a great driver.
That is one of the reasons why I have contended for a long time that the domination of Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports is one small factor in the demise or at least one of the factors why NASCAR is not what it was fifteen or even twenty years ago. Yes, Richard Petty, the King, dominated in the 60’s, and others dominated at different times, but never at the length that the Hendrick Motorsports teams have, especially at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the 1.5 mile tracks. Given that the final ten races are dominated by such tracks, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that we’ve already seen who is going to win the NASCAR championship and his name is Johnson. Last year, bad luck played into that scenario, but without that happening, there are no drivers like Brad Keselowski on the horizon to challenge him. Of course, the great part is you never know. Hendrick Chevrolets and Gibbs Toyota dominate the series, but as the season goes along and the expertise of the Hendrick teams continue to shine, we know the outcome, if Jimmie is out front at the end.
Who could be the challenger? Naming them is difficult. Competition from the Chevrolet side would include Johnson’s teammates, but others pale by comparison, and that’s a problem. You might make an argument for Kevin Harvick, but we’ve seen less than stellar performance from any of the Richard Childress Racing team. With so many Chevrolets in the lineup—they dominate—it seems Johnson’s main competition is in house.
Toyota has several challengers. Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch from Gibbs (and maybe Denny Hamlin if he can perform a miracle), and Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex, Jr. from Michael Waltrip Racing seem to be the best bets. The smart money would be on Kenseth, Busch, or Bowyer, but consistency is a problem so far.
Ford only has Carl Edwards. Brad Keselowski, the defending champion who seems to have been forgotten in all of this, should be at the top of the list and would be if not for that nasty penalty he and Joey Logano received earlier. I look for Keselowski to come on at the end after they are totally comfortable with the new car. Joey Logano is a year away, although his talent is coming through. His second place finish in the Showdown was impressive. Edwards, though not a factor in most races to win, is showing the consistency that crew chief Jimmy Fenning brought Kenseth for so long. Greg Biffle is out to lunch so far and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., though a rookie, is showing signs of improvement and could be a spoiler later on.
In the end, Johnson, who is more than a race ahead of any challenger, will go into the last ten races with a huge advantage, one that will be difficult to overcome. If that happens, it won’t be the drivers’ loss as much as NASCAR. Knowing who is going to win before they play the game (or race) is not going to get more fans in the seats or drive ratings. It’s a problem, but not to the Hendrick guys. They are paid to dominate and it’s up to the opposition to catch up. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened lately. Let’s hope that changes soon.