As soon as Jimmie Johnson won last week in Dover, the wails began. "The Chase is over!" "NASCAR is fixed!" "Why bother watching?" The idea, of course, is that Vader's march to a fifth straight Cup championship is as inevitable as the tides, that this whole Chase is only one long coronation of Johnson, a coronation that no one will bother watching.
Even the most ardent Johnson-hater has to admit, though, that the 48 team does have an extra gear come playoff time. Question is, when does that extra gear kick in? Over the next few weeks, we'll take a look at how Johnson's 2010 compares to his previous Chase years at this point. We'll also consider how many drivers are within 100 points -- the margin a driver could make up by finishing 10 places ahead of Johnson two races in a row -- at this point in the season. Jenna Fryer thinks that Johnson's well on the path to a fifth Cup, but is he? Let's see what the stats show after three races.
2010: Johnson has placed 1st, 2nd and 25th, and currently leads the Chase. Seven drivers are within 100 points of Johnson, with another, Jeff Burton, at 101 points back.
2009: Johnson won at Dover and placed fourth and ninth in the other two races. That had him in second, 18 points behind Mark Martin. Six drivers were within 100 points of the lead.
2006: Johnson racked up finishes of 39th, 13th and 14th. As a result, he was in 8th place, 165 points behind leader Jeff Burton. Four drivers were within 100 points of Burton's lead.
What can we draw from this? Johnson is on the move, certainly, but the Chase is tighter up top than at any time during Johnson's reign. He's succeeding, of course, but not at the same rate he's done at times in the past. (It's also worth noting that he's well ahead of the pace in set in 2009 and 2006.)
Bottom line: Johnson is a serious threat to win his fifth Cup. But you can't consider him a lock just yet. We'll revisit this in a week and see where things stand.