Their only hope to get back into contention in the Chase for the Championship is for something bad to happen to Johnson and Brad Keselowski in the final three races.
Johnson’s win last Sunday at Martinsville, Va., gave the five-time champion a two-point lead over Keselowski. Bowyer and Kahne are in difficult situations, trailing by 26 and 29 points, respectively. Everyone else needs more than a bizarre twist in the stretch drive. They need miracles.
Nobody knows how to play the Chase game better than Johnson. He won five in a row with his streak ending a year ago. Now he’s back in position to win another one.
Two points translates to two finishing positions. Since there are 913 laps remaining, including 334 this Sunday at the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, there’s no margin for error for Johnson or Keselowski.
When it comes to protecting a lead, however, Johnson has been masterful in the past. He led with three races to go three times in the past and he hung on to win the championship every time. He also managed to rally from sixth place in 2007 and second place in 2010 to win championships.
For Johnson to win again, he simply needs to stay away from other people’s troubles and do what he does best – be smarter and faster than everyone else.
“We’re ready to race under any conditions,” Johnson said. “(Keselowski’s) a great driver. It’s a great team. Next two races will tell the tale. Anything can happen. You never know. You got to go race the race.”
Although Johnson has one career win at Texas and one at next week’s venue, Phoenix International Raceway, he refuses to make any predictions.
“I’m not smiling; I’m not anything. It can happen to me. It can happen to the 2 (Keselowski). It’s just one of those voodoo things you don’t do in this sport. With three races left, anything can happen.”
Keselowski has to like his chances, especially since he escaped with a sixth-place finish at Martinsville, one of his worse tracks in the playoffs. His Dodge has a lot of horsepower for tracks like Texas and Homestead-Miami Speedway, and it seems to get the best fuel mileage.
Keselowski is confident, although he’s never won at any of the final three tracks on the schedule.
“I feel really confident going into Texas and Homestead,” he said. “I feel like those are two races that we can race the 48 car (Johnson) heads-up in speed and maybe even a little bit better than them. Like I said, we’ve got a couple races coming up where I know we’re going to have speed and I’m feeling great.
“But we need to do more than survive to win the championship.”
He discounts Bowyer and Kahne as viable contenders, so he feels like he has a little more latitude to push the issue with Johnson. That, of course, could open the door for Bowyer and Kahne to get back into it.
“I still think we are in it, and still think we have a shot,” Kahne said. “We are still running strong and have made up a couple points the last couple weeks – not many, but we have made up a little bit. So it’s going to be tough to beat them but we are going to try.
“So, yes, we definitely still have a shot, but we're a ways out. I wish we were within 20 or 15. I think we’d be a lot more legit at that point.”
But as Johnson said, anything can happen.