AVONDALE, Ariz. — Jimmie Johnson’s overwhelming victory last Sunday at Texas pushed him to a seven-point lead in this year’s Chase for the Championship.
While that translates to a total of just seven finishing positions in the final two races, there is a growing sense this year’s championship already is a formality.
Matt Kenseth certainly isn’t going to give up. And he’s won at the last two tracks – Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. But there’s a belief in the garage area that Johnson is peaking at the right time.
After winning five consecutive championships and falling short the past two years, there is a special sense of purpose at Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have never been more focused, and their No. 48 Chevrolet hasn’t been any faster.
“I mean, the amount of energy that Chad and Jimmie put into it amazes me,” car owner Rick Hendrick said. “I look at Jimmie and his workout routine and what he eats and how he runs. And I look at Chad, and Chad is calmer and I think he’s more-seasoned than I’ve seen him. He can handle adversity better, and that’s made the team better.”
Johnson has two wins and seven top-six finishes in the first eight Chase races. Kenseth has kept pace, but in the past four races, Johnson has led a total of 555 laps while Kenseth has led just 230 laps.
Kenseth led the Chase the first five races, but Johnson led the points by four three weeks ago. He and Kenseth were tied after the race at Martinsville, Va., two weeks ago. Now Johnson is back out front.
Johnson hit the wall late in last year’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix, and then he fell out of the season finale at Homestead, Fla., with a broken rear gear. That finish has served as a catalyst to be better prepared, emotionally and mechanically, this year.
“We learn lessons each and every year,” Johnson said.
Knaus and Johnson have been together for all 66 victories and all five championships – a fact Knaus doesn’t take for granted.
“I fear the fact that one day, we’ll never win a race again,” Knaus said. “I fear the fact that one day I won’t work with Jimmie again. I fear the fact that one day, I won’t have this amazing facility at Hendrick Motorsports to work in. I try to work as hard as I can ... because I know at some point in time, it’s going to go away. I love my job. I’ve never once not wanted to get up and go to work.”
Which doesn’t bode well for everyone else in the Chase, particularly Kenseth.