Before the start of this year's Chase, Jimmie Johnson predicted that NASCAR's postseason would be defined by how drivers reacted to the "big moments that will determine whether or not you will win the championship." Johnson's big moment arrived on Sunday at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. His first two postseason runs had ended poorly, and this was essentially a do-or-die race for the five-time defending champ. In the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 19, Johnson ran out of fuel on the last lap, finishing 10th. A week later, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he and Kyle Busch inadvertently collided, and the resulting damage to his number 48 Chevy caused Johnson to fade to an 18th-place finish. Heading into Dover, Johnson was a career-low 10th in the Chase standings and in danger of being eliminated from title contention. "When those big moments come, you simply have to step up," he said. "If you don't, you'll be done."
At Dover, Johnson stepped up. Starting sixth, he ran consistently in the top 10 before gaining the lead for a race-high 157 laps. Kurt Busch, his archrival, passed him on a restart with 41 laps remaining to take the checkered flag, but Johnson still finished second. More significant, the man known around the Cup garage as Five Time moved up to fifth in the standings on the strength of his finish, and the untimely struggles of several other Chase drivers—most notably Tony Stewart (who finished 25th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (24th). Johnson now trails Chase leader Kevin Harvick (who finished 10th) by just 13 points. (Harvick is tied atop the points standings with Carl Edwards but owns the tie-breaker because he has won more races.) "All in all, [the finish was] exactly what we needed," Johnson said after the race. "Mission accomplished."
Johnson has one big edge on his championship competition: the schedule, which has been his greatest asset during his unprecedented title run. Unlike every other playoff driver, he does not have a weak track in the Chase. His worst venues on the Cup circuit—Daytona (where his career average finish is 17.0), Richmond (17.2) and Indianapolis (18.4)—are spring and summer dates on the NASCAR schedule. The typically understated Johnson was so confident that he would perform well at Dover (career average finish: 9.2) that while sitting in his motor coach last Saturday night, he picked up his cellphone and tapped out a message to his followers on Twitter: "We can get it done from 6th."
Based on recent history, Johnson should once again be a threat to win this Sunday at Kansas Speedway, where in his last five starts he has one victory and an average finish of 4.4. There's no question that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have not been as dominant this year as in past seasons—the duo has only visited Victory Lane once in 2011—but throughout the garage they are still considered the team to beat. Why? Because in pressure moments such as the one Johnson and Knaus faced on Sunday, they have a history of finding that extra gear.
KAHNE IS ABLE
One of the biggest stories of the off-season will be the move of Kasey Kahne to Hendrick Motorsports, where he'll take over Mark Martin's seat in the number 5 Chevy. For Kahne, 2011 has been a lost season—entering Sunday's race he had only three top five finishes for Red Bull Racing, which is leaving the sport at season's end. But on Sunday, Kahne ran a strong fourth in what felt like a preview of 2012 for the 31-year-old... . A month ago Jeff Gordon was the popular pick in the garage to dethrone Jimmie Johnson. But three races into the Chase, following a lackluster 12th-place run at Dover, the four-time series champ is floundering, mired in ninth in the standings. His biggest problem, which first surfaced three races ago at Chicagoland, has been a poor-handling car. Gordon's make-or-break race will come on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.
JASON SMITH/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (JOHNSON)
LOOKING ahead With his strong second-place finish at Dover, Johnson jumped from 10th to fifth in the Chase standings and is now just 13 points out of first place—with many of his best tracks still to come.
KEN MCKIMM/ICON SMI (KAHNE)