During his run of five consecutive titles, Jimmie Johnson entered the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway trailing just once, and that was in 2010, when he beat Denny Hamlin. And if he wants to hoist the trophy again on Sunday, he's going to have to do it once again.
By the average finish numbers, Homestead hasn't been Johnson's best track; his average finish is 13.5. But that's a little deceiving. He finished 25th in his rookie season in 2001, 40th when chasing Tony Stewart for the title in 2005 and was 32nd last year, the first Chase he wasn't in contention for at Homestead.
Every other race, Johnson has finished in the top five all but once. When falling short to Kurt Busch in 2004, he finished second. (If Johnson would have swiped the lead from Greg Biffle before that race's final caution, he would have won the title.) In his championship seasons, his performances have gone like this:
2006: 9th (won by 56 points)
2007: 7th (won by 77 points)
2008: 15th (won by 69 points)
2009: 5th (won by 141 points)
2010: 2nd (won by 39 points)
Hell, in 2008, that margin was after Carl Edwards gained 62 points on Johnson by winning the race. When Vader can smell the championship, he can usually put it away. However, given the 20-point deficit to Brad Keselowski, it may be too difficult to overcome.
With the usual caveat in this weekly series that Keselowski's average finish is not a reliable indicator of possible performance, Keselowski's average finish is 20.2 in four races at Homestead. Here's how his four races have broken down:
As you surely know, Keselowski needs to finish just 15th or better and Johnson can't win the championship. If he doesn't perform strongly on Sunday and scores an average 20th-place finish? Well, that 20-point cushion comes in handy. Under the current points structure, Johnson would need to duplicate his 2010 effort to win the championship. Every other of his Homestead finishes wouldn't be enough.
On to the other Chasers for the final time this season:
Kevin Harvick: Harvick has the highest average finish of any of the Chasers at Homestead at 7.9 despite not having a win at the track. That's thanks to five top fives and nine top 10 finishes in 11 starts. He finished eighth last year.
Martin Truex Jr.: Other Junior's average finish is 10.2 and he finished third here last year. He's a dark horse to steal the win Sunday given the way he's performed at 1.5-mile tracks this season.
Hamlin: Throwing away a 33rd place finish in his first Homestead race, Denny Hamlin's worst Homestead performance (14th) came in that fateful 2010 race when he entered with the points lead, qualified poorly and then spun early. His average finish is 10.4 and he won this race in 2009.
Jeff Gordon: Gordon has 10 top 10s in 13 Homestead starts and his highest finish is a third place in 2006. If he wants to exceed his 11.3 average finish, he better stay the hell away from Clint Bowyer.
Tony Stewart: Last year was Stewart's first win on the new Homestead configuration after winning the first two races at the track in 1999 and 2000. Smoke's average finish is 11.5 in 13 races.
Bowyer: His average finish is 13.8 and he has three top 10s in six races. And his key to a good performance may be pretty simple too: Stay the hell away from Gordon.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne has the best average starting position of any driver at Homestead at 7.2, but his average finish is 14.8. In his two races at Homestead with Red Bull Racing, he finished sixth and seventh.
Biffle: The Biff reeled off three straight wins at Homestead from 2004-2006, but since then it's been a load of blah, with finishes of 13th, 18th, 14th, 10th and 35th. That's why his average finish is 15.3.
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth won this race in 2007 and has an average finish of 16.3. His is so low because in his first five Homestead races, his highest finish was 19th. Yes, Flatline was probably very happy about the move to progressive banking.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: In 12 Homestead starts, Junior has no top fives and no top 10s. None, nada, zip, zero, zilch. But he was as close as he's ever been last year, finishing 11th. This year, he gets that top 10. His average finish is 23.1.