Is Jimmie Johnson still the driver to beat?
The book says so. He is the four-time defending champ, after all, and not once in that quartet of title runs has he finished the regular season as the points leader. That's a trend that will continue if he wins No. 5 this season. With three races to go before the Chase begins, Kevin Harvick has opened up a 293-point lead over second place and is nearly 400 points clear of Johnson.
Four hundred points.
If that hasn't gotten the attention of the field, then Sunday's win at Michigan International Speedway certainly did. For seemingly the umpteenth straight race, Harvick was in contention to win. For the third time this season, he did. In the process, he became the first driver to clinch a spot in this year's Chase in which, right now, he – not Johnson – has to be considered the favorite.
"I don't think that you can put together any 10 week stretch during the course of the year where Kevin has been off. He's always been solid," said Denny Hamlin, who finished second on Sunday. "I really don't see how he can't be really the favorite going into it as solid of performance as he's been."
While thrilled with his team's performance, Harvick is taking a more cautious approach.
"I think over the last four years, you can look at the 48 [Johnson] and they've done the same thing and won the championship," warned Harvick. "We're fast enough to beat 'em, but the circumstances and all the things have to go your way over the last 10 weeks. It's not about a whole season anymore; it's about 10 weeks."
Yes, we've seen this movie before. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus show flashes of brilliance during the regular season, yet never seem to play their best cards until the Chase rolls around. When it does, hope springs eternal because Mark Martin or Carl Edwards or Jeff Gordon is clearly running better than Johnson. But then, about midway through the Chase, it becomes clear that Johnson and Knaus have been lying in the weeds the entire time and – BOOM! – they hit the accelerator. And just like that, it's over.
So why should this season be any different?
Two reasons: 1) Harvick's consistency. 2) Johnson's inconsistency.
Contrary to what some believe, winning races will not be the key to winning this year's title. Consistency will be. While Johnson and Hamlin lead the way in terms of wins, neither is even in Harvick's neighborhood in the standings. That's because, as Hamlin points out, Harvick's been solid just about every single week. Only three times this season has Harvick finished lower than 13th.
According to how this season has gone, not finishing lower than 13th will ultimately prevail over multiple wins mixed in with several sub-par performances. In a 10-race stretch earlier this season in which he won five races, Hamlin's average finish was 7.0. Despite the five wins, that's still not good enough to match Harvick's best 10-race string which produced two wins and a 6.0 average finish.
As for Johnson, he's been as consistent as a penny stock. One week he's up, the next he's down. But what has to be most troubling for the 48 camp is the fact that even when they've been up, they haven't been as good as Harvick.
Sunday, Johnson took the lead on Lap 1. In past years, he would have checked out on the field and cruised to victory lane. Now, though, he gets passed 14 laps later and isn't a factor the rest of the day as he and Knaus try to figure out what's gone wrong.
This has been the norm as of late. It was at Indianapolis. It was at Pocono. And it was again at Michigan.
"We overcame a lot today," said Johnson, putting his best spin on a 12th-place finish. "We started the race good and faded a little bit, and in the middle of the race when things started to slip from us we did a good job of keeping our heads in the game and not letting it beat us down, start making bad decisions.
"It's definitely not the finish we wanted, but I think it was a big victory in a lot of other areas. At a few races this year we've had some struggles and you can all get frustrated and start making mistakes, but we kept our head in the game."
Though it may have been a solid salvage job by Johnson and the 48 crew, salvation isn't going to be good enough to win a title, not as long as Harvick and the No. 29 crew remain at the level they have been since February.
Yes, that's a big if, but it's not as big an if as the one facing the four-time defending champion. This is why, right now, Jimmie Johnson is not the driver to beat and Kevin Harvick is.