At the midway point of the 2010 Chase, the most basic fact of NASCAR life remains unchanged from the previous four autumns: Jimmie Johnson is the driver to beat. After finishing third last Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway behind winner Jamie McMurray and runner-up Kyle Busch, Johnson, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion, holds a 41-point lead in the standings over Denny Hamlin with five races left in the season. Which leads us to the first (and most obvious) of SI's Mid-Chase Awards:
• Top Driver:Jimmie Johnson
After he finished 25th in the Chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 19, Johnson dropped from second to sixth in the standings. But since then he has an average finish of 2.25 and has been as flawless behind the wheel as a young Richard Petty. Yes, here we go again. The Chase schedule favors Johnson more than any other driver—he's won at all the remaining playoff tracks except Homestead-Miami—and Johnson has never lost a title after being alone at the top of the standings with five races left. Says veteran driver Mark Martin of Johnson, "He's Superman."
• Biggest Blunder:Tony Stewart
Leading the Chase opener at New Hampshire with a little more than two miles to the finish line, Stewart knew he was nearly out of gas. Instead of pitting, he gambled and stayed on the track. Bad idea. He ran out of fuel and wound up finishing 24th. Since then Stewart, who's sixth in the standings, has one win and two top five finishes, but he effectively blew his shot at the title during that race in the Granite State. Moral of the story: Don't take chances early in the Chase.
• Best Rivalry:None
Want to know the biggest reason why TV ratings for every Chase race this season are lower than they were in 2009? It's the lack of fender-banging, insult-trading rivalries. One of the most undervalued keys to Johnson's success is that he's chummy with the other drivers off the track, which has resulted in as much courtesy—and space—on the track as anyone in the sport. It appears that everyone in the garage finally has picked up on this strategy, and now most of the drivers get along so famously that you'd think that they were beer-drinking buddies, which many of them are. This has dulled a sport whose popularity was built on such sharp edges as Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison (see the 1979 Daytona 500)—and has prompted fans to flip the channel.
• Most Honest:Carl Edwards
When asked last week what he thought of Talladega Superspeedway, a 2.66-mile tri-oval where multicar wrecks are commonplace, Edwards said, "Points should not be awarded at Talladega.... It's just a treacherous race."
It's also the most important race left in the Chase because it's the one track on the schedule in which a driver doesn't control his own destiny due to the restrictor plates on the engines that keep the cars in tight packs. Johnson knows this, which is why the specter of the Big One on Halloween at 'Dega has been haunting his sleep for weeks. It may be, after all, the only thing that could keep him from winning his fifth straight Cup.
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SHORT TRACK Up and Down
Even though he didn't make the Chase, Jamie McMurray has had a memorable season. He's won three prestigious races: the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and last Saturday night's Bank of America 500 in Charlotte, which is the sport's home base. Expect McMurray, 34, to be a title contender in 2011.... The most disappointed driver in Charlotte had to be Jeff Gordon. After starting on the pole, he was penalized late in the race for speeding on pit road and finished 23rd. His winless streak is at 60 races—a career high—and he fell 156 points behind Johnson in the standings. Gordon, a four-time Cup champ, is 39, which raises the question: Are his best days behind him?
NELL REDMOND/UPI/LANDOV (JOHNSON)
MILES OF SMILES For the third time, Johnson has the points lead to himself with five races to go in the Chase.
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (MCMURRAY)