Brad Keselowski has two Chase wins and a certain aura of championship invincibility. Jimmie Johnson, on Keselowski's heels, doesn't have a win quite yet but the three top-10s in his back pocket are par for a championship course. Denny Hamlin? Well, it's hard to think his New Hampshire domination will be a one-off effort in the season's final seven races.
The first three races of NASCAR's 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup have largely taken on a tune in favor of those three drivers, thanks mostly to their consistent performances. It's produced the first definition of Chase haves and have-nots heading to Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway - a place where those drivers who trail are hoping for a shake-up.
But what if Talladega doesn't play out like the Chase tumbler many expect it to be? Will NASCAR have weeded out championship contenders less than halfway through the 10-race stretch?
Making that prediction, of course, is roughly as reliable as one of Kyle Busch engines this year. No one knows how NASCAR's most important laps of the season will play out. We do, however, know that drivers seemingly reeling from mediocre Chase starts still stand a shot.
Inspired by NASCAR's statistic guru Mike Forde, I set out to fully understand what kind of comebacks the sport could potentially see as we move through 2012's final seven races. But I'm not one to live on possibilities, so I opted to find what kind of turnarounds we've actually already seen in the not-so-long eight year history of the Chase.
The results were interesting, but admittedly hard to come by. Thanks to NASCAR changing the point structure radically last year, box scores and race recaps from the middle of the last decade didn't provide a perfectly accurate picture of what today's Chase contenders face. Essentially, the old point system and the new point system were wildly different and offered a different percentage of points at each position compared to the maximum number of points available.
The solution, thanks to a friend with substantial Microsoft Excel acumen, came in the form of a data-ready spreadsheet and two doses of Advil. The story it told, however, was pretty interesting - especially for a cloudy, rainy fall day in Indiana.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson - owner of five of the eight total championships so far awarded under the Chase format - lays claim to the most impressive Chase comeback yet. It's a detail most likely overlooked because he won three more titles after it, and because it was steady and almost stealthy ascent from the bottom rungs to the top.
Johnson's mighty comeback played out in 2006 when he rolled to the championship after falling behind by an incredible 165 points just three races in. In the old point system, that was more than the number of points available to gain in any one race (161). Yet Johnson, scoring just one Chase win that year, found a way to lead the point standings just five races later thanks to a runner-up finish at Texas. Most astoundingly, he had two more races to complete the comeback and didn't need them.
How, though, would that have played out in NASCAR's current point system? Would Johnson have completed the comeback at all?
Damn right he would.
Had Johnson (and the rest of the field) been competing in 2006 with NASCAR's current one-point-per-position system, he would have left that season's third Chase race at Kansas trailing by 45 points. Just one week later - the series visited Talladega for the fourth race of the Chase in 2006, too - Johnson's fortune wasn't looking that much better. He only gained one point on then-series leader Matt Kenseth, leaving a 44-point gap with six races to go.
Johnson's fortunes, unlike those of many competitors, turned especially bright in the next five races. The No. 48 reeled off finishes of second, first, second, second and second between Charlotte and Phoenix, and left for the season finale with a manageable title lead. He didn't relinquish it.
Johnson's ascent to Chase supremacy in 2006, however, was certainly helped by his competitors. Jeff Burton, with a decent eight-point lead going to the sixth race at Martinsville, plummeted out of contention with an engine failure. Johnson's win that day saw his deficit rocket from 40 points behind before the race to just 17 points back by the end of the day. The very next week at Atlanta, Johnson was one of two drivers to actually pick up points on Kenseth while seven other contenders suffered mild to substantial point losses.
All of this is interesting because it illustrates that NASCAR's current point system allows for a comeback of impressive ranges, even when five or so races are all that are left. That means the likes of Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle all have reasonable time to move back through the field in 2012. The only caveat? They'll probably need some help in the form of inconsistency from the likes of Hamlin, Johnson and Keselowski.
Such a shakeup could happen naturally Sunday at the always-wild Talladega, making this a mostly moot point. But if it doesn't, and your driver doesn't fall to Matt Kenseth-like depths, don't lose all hope on the Chase quite yet.
HOT: Denny Hamlin didn't win Sunday, but he showed notable important over his Dover past.
NOT: Kyle Busch's comments over the radio directed at his Toyota engine supplier will do no good.
HOT: Regan Smith's classy and responsible reaction to a team releasing him in favor of a guy they'll probably fire next season should be commended.
NOT: TV ratings for NASCAR's Chase continued on a downward trend. Where do they bottom out? What will bring fans (casual or not) back? I'm not certain qualifying tweaks and testing in 2013 is enough.
HOT: Mark Martin led the three-car, three top-10 effort of Michael Waltrip Racing Sunday at Dover with his third-place finish.
HOT: It's not too surprising that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. already seems to have the chops to be a solid Sprint Cup racer, as evidenced by his 12th-place run Sunday. That said, I'm not sure why RFR isn't bringing the No. 6 back with him.
NOT: Comeback scenarios seem a long way off for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle.
HOT: Bobby Labonte's 14th-place finish tied the best finish of the season for that team on non-restrictor plate tricks.
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