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Caraviello: Johnson's narrow lead is larger than it seems

NASCAR.com

It was the kind of finish that lodges itself in the memory banks for some time, and with good reason. The leader spinning on the final lap, the two remaining contenders roaring over grass mounds and rumble strips to the final corner, the flat-out sprint to the finish line -- no question, the conclusion of last Sunday's event at Watkins Glen International was among the most mesmerizing of the year. But after it was all over, after Marcos Ambrose had doused himself in champagne and Richard Petty had reveled in Victory Lane and Kyle Busch had walked out stunned and speechless, something almost overlooked yet still quite significant remained.

As crew chief Chad Knaus says so often over the radio: New leader, 48.

It's by only a spare point, but Jimmie Johnson once again leads the Sprint Cup Series, something that hasn't occurred since after the event at Atlanta Motor Speedway last Labor Day weekend. It's a tentative advantage, and one that wouldn't exist had Johnson finished fifth rather than third Sunday on the upstate New York road course, and as it is a trio of drivers is separated at the top by a mere three points. But only one of those drivers is a five-time series champion, only one of them has three victories on the season, and only one of them can send a shiver down the spine just by his presence atop the standings, regardless of how slim the gap between him and his closest pursuers might be.

Looking good
Johnson's past 12 races
Darlington 2 1
Charlotte 3 11
Dover 2 1
Pocono 24 4
Michigan 10 5
Sonoma 3 5
Kentucky 1 6
Daytona 16 36
Loudon 7 7
Indianapolis 6 1
Pocono 10 14
Watkins Glen 3 3

So indeed, from a big-picture perspective, Johnson's narrow lead on the rest of the field might be the most meaningful event to occur on an eventful afternoon on the storied road course, where the hopes of Chase wild-card contenders Busch and Jeff Gordon suffered hits while Ambrose tossed his long-shot hat into the ring. That Johnson leads Greg Biffle by a single point is somewhat irrelevant. What isn't, though, is the fact that Johnson is fast becoming the only driver this season to show that mix of potency and consistency that can help him not only win multiple races, but also pace the standings. He's at least put himself in position to lead the points in the regular season, and has three victories in his hip pocket that right now give him an edge on leading the Chase.

No one else can claim that, the combination of week-to-week strength that it takes to lead before Richmond, and the trips to Victory Lane that it takes to lead afterward. Biffle and Matt Kenseth may be right in Johnson's tire tracks at the moment, but barring a spate of victories on the part of the Roush Fenway drivers over the next four weekends, they'll lose ground once the playoff begins. Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart may match Johnson in terms of race wins, but they lag far enough back in the standings to make you wonder if they can put together the 10 weeks of excellence it takes to win the championship. Keselowski's current fifth-place ranking is his highest of the season, and the eighth-place Stewart has been in the top five just twice since early April.

Things can change, of course, and quickly under this simplified point-for-position format, and there is no greater evidence of that than the unexpected title run Stewart unleashed late last year. But for now, Johnson stands much as he's always been -- the total package. No one else has shown both the consistency to contend for the championship, as well as the speed to win it. And even if Johnson should lose that top spot this weekend on the new surface at Michigan International Speedway, there's reason enough to believe that he may not be out of first for very long.

Simply put, the No. 48 team has a little bit of that swagger back right now, and rightly so. Since recording that breakthrough 200th victory for his Hendrick Motorsports team at Darlington, Johnson's average finish has been 7.8, his only hiccups occurring when he was turned into the wall at Daytona, and when he suffered that ill-timed spin while leading two weeks ago at Pocono. The past three weeks have been vintage Jimmie -- an overwhelming victory at Indianapolis, a dominant effort at Pocono that turned into a 14th-place finish, and a where-did-he-come-from third-place run at Watkins Glen that helped him vault over three other drivers and snag the lead in the points. Granted, had Keselowski beaten Ambrose in that dash to the finish Sunday, the driver of the Blue Deuce would have seized the lead in the race for that top Chase spot. But as things stand now it belongs to Johnson, who has plainly run better than everyone else.

That's a scary prospect, especially considering that he's also once again getting inside his competitors' heads. Heading to the big Michigan track will surely once again put the focus on the "yaw" in the rear of the No. 48 car, that mysterious but evidently legal setup tactic that has the rest of the garage playing catch-up. It's not quite at the level of the mind games we saw toward the end of Johnson's last title campaign of 2011, when his team used things like pit selection to try and rattle championship rival Denny Hamlin down the stretch. But combined with the performance and the multiple race victories, it all paints one unmistakable picture -- Johnson is back, this time for real.

Because to a degree, we've seen something like this before, and right about at this same time of year. Before Sunday, the last time Johnson had led the points outright was after a runner-up finish at Atlanta that gave him a rather healthy 21-point advantage over Busch, with whom he had been tied for the top spot the previous week. But the performances were too uneven, the trips to Victory Lane too few. Johnson won last spring at Talladega, and then didn't win again until 22 weeks later at Kansas, and then didn't win again until Hendrick's 200th this year. There was no killer instinct, because there wasn't enough speed in the cars. Once the Chase started, the weaknesses became glaring, and Johnson's brief turn atop the standings seemed like a mirage.

Now, that's not the case. With three victories and a string of solid efforts behind him, the one-point edge Johnson currently holds over Biffle feels much more solid than the 21-point advantage he enjoyed over Busch at almost this same time last year -- proof that it's not necessarily the size of the lead that matters, but the quality of the performances that created it. Back then, there was the sense that he was just holding on. Today, it feels like Jimmie Johnson is just getting started.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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