Monthly Archives: August 2016

Summer Slumps Don’t Matter to Jimmie Johnson

*edited to include the 2016 and 2017 season as of 7/10*

Much has been made of the demise of Hendrick Motorsports and the slump they’re enduring and how the sky is falling over at NASCAR’s preeminent shop. Yawn. We’ve heard this before. In fact, for the most dominant team in NASCAR’s modern era, the sky falls practically every summer. And just like clockwork as the leaves change, amazingly so does Johnson’s fortune as the summer winds to a close.

When something happens often enough, it’s no longer due to chance, or luck. You just chalk it up to the way things are. And Jimmie Johnson struggling through the summer, seemingly making him seem vulnerable, only to recover once the playoffs start is a fall tradition that’s about as entrenched as Thanksgiving Day football at this point.

So let’s slow down wondering what’s wrong with Hendrick Motorsports. Talk to me after the chase if Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson don’t have their Lowe’s Chevy up front consistently over the final ten races of the season competing for wins and the title.

JimmieJohnson7

Slow summer for Jimmie Johnson? Yawn. We’ve seen what this becomes.

After all, we’ve seen this before. Just look

2004

Summer- From Indianapolis up until the final race of the regular season finished 36th or worse in 4 of six races. Three weeks in a row suffered a blown engine while averaging a 28.2 finish over the final six races of the regular season.

Chase- Slump continued to begin the chase by opening with an 11th and 10th, followed by two DNFs at Talladega and Kansas to seemingly end championship hopes. Proceeded to win four of the next five races and then finished 2nd at Homestead to narrowly miss out on winning the championship.

2005

Summer- After the series 14th race at Pocono Johnson held a 123 point lead over Greg Biffle in the standings. Johnson would go on to finish out of the top ten in eight of the next dozen races with an average finish of 19.4 and fell 316 points behind Tony Stewart.

Chase- Johnson won twice in the chase and entered Homestead just 52 points behind Tony Stewart in the race for the championship before an accident relegated him to a 40th place finish.

2006

Summer- Over the final five races of the regular season Johnson had an average finish of 14.8 with only one top ten finish.

Chase- After being wrecked by teammate Brian Vickers on the last lap while racing for the win at Talladega, Johnson found himself 8th in points after four races in the chase and 202 points out of the lead. Over the next five races his average finish was 1.8, with four runner-ups and a win en route to his first championship.

2007

Summer- From Dover during the first weekend of June thru the Brickyard 400 at the end of July, Johnson finished 15th or worse in six of the next eight races. Three of those finishes were 37th or worse and he found himself 9th in points, 607 in arrears of teammate Jeff Gordon after averaging a 23rd place finish during that stretch.

Chase- Johnson averaged a steady 7.8 average finish over the first five chase races. He then proceeded to win four races in a row to catapult him to his second straight title.

2008

Summer- For once, there was no summer slump to speak of. Struggles during May kept Johnson from commanding the standings, but he ended the regular season 3rd in points.

Chase- Eight finishes in the top 10, and no finishes worse than 15th coupled nicely with three victories as Johnson matched Cale Yarborough with his third straight championship.

2009

Summer- After twenty races and his victory at Indianapolis, Johnson sat second in points. However, over the final six races of the regular season, Johnson would only finish in the top ten once, managing only to have an average finish of 18.8.

Chase- Four wins and seven top five finishes were more than enough for Johnson to wrap up title number four.

2010

Summer- Back to back wins at Sonoma and Loudon had Johnson second in points, 105 behind Kevin Harvick after 17 races. His average finish over the next seven races though was a staggering 23.3 with just one top ten finish and five finishes out of the top twenty.

Chase- After a 25th place finish in the first race of the chase, Johnson used nine straight finishes inside the top ten to wrap up his fifth consecutive championship.

2011

Summer- There was no real slump for the 48 team over the summer of 2011, and many expected them to be a favorite for the title once the chase began.

Chase- An absolute disaster for Johnson, they finished out of the top ten in seven of the ten races and finished a then career worst 6th in points.

2012

Summer- There was a mini slump from Daytona thru Richmond as Johnson had five finishes out of the top ten over the final nine events of the regular season.

Chase- Five top five finishes among the first eight events of the chase had Johnson in the points lead with two laps to go, but an uncharacteristic collapse over the final two races saw finishes of 32nd and 36th derail their championship hopes.

2013

Summer- Over the final four races leading into the chase, Johnson had an average finish of 36th, and average finish of 27.5 over the final half dozen races in the regular season.

Chase- For the second time in his career, Johnson used nine top tens in the chase to walk away with the championship at the end of the year.

2014

Summer- After 17 races Johnson sat second in points, right on the heels of Jeff Gordon. But after averaging a 33rd place over their next five races, including three finishes of 39th or worse, Johnson had fallen to 7th in points.

Chase- Johnson steadily advanced out of the first round of NASCAR’s reformulated chase, but he failed to finish higher than 17th in any of the races in round two and was eliminated.

2015

Summer- After the season’s official halfway point Johnson found himself second in points. But from there to the conclusion of the regular season eight races later, Johnson only averaged a 14.4 average finish.

Chase- This time they couldn’t right the ship at all in the chase, as mechanical failure at Dover doomed them to first round elimination.

2016

Summer- Jimmie Johnson sat third in points after the Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600, but when the calendar flipped to June, like clockwork the 48 suddenly started tumbling in the standings. Over the next 14 races Johnson had an average finish of 19.4, with only one top 5. The 48 team led only three races for a total of 42 laps, and 41 of those 42 came in the two Michigan races. In fact, when the circuit left Darlington after Labor Day, Johnson had fallen from 3rd in points to 11th between the summer bookend weekends.

Chase- Due to his two wins, Johnson was still able to begin the playoffs tied for 4th, a mere 6 points behind leader Brad Keselowski as the first round began. Johnson used an average finish of 9th in the first round to advance and then subsequently won the opening race of each of the following two rounds to secure his spot in the finale at Homestead where, of course, he won again, and won his record tying 7th championship.

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Don’t let the recent pitfalls and bad luck confuse you, Jimmie Johnson is still a title contender

2017?

So, yes, he’s struggled again this summer. His average finish over the last 8 races is a very pedestrian 19.1, and that includes winning a race in that stretch. While he’s won 3 of the first 18 races this year, he hasn’t finished better than 8th in any of the others, posting an average finish of 18.7.

But if you wanna count this time out of the championship hunt, do so at your own risk. I didn’t last August, and it paid off quite nice at the end of the year.

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Re-Evaluating Chances of Chase Contenders

nascar-cup-pocono-ii-2016-winner-chris-buescher-front-row-motorsports-ford-bob-osborne-cre

Buescher’s victory at Pocono may have completely changed the game in the quest for the 2016 chase.

Two weeks ago I looked at the drivers not yet locked into the chase field with a victory and gave my appraisal of their chances at the time to manage to make NASCAR’s sixteen team playoff field. The world of NASCAR is a strange place, because a lot has changed in those two weeks.

Dale Earnhardt Jr seems no closer to coming back from concussion related symptoms, so the chances of him pointing his way have disappeared. Chase Elliott’s tumble has continued to where it’s bordering on epic collapse, and Jamie McMurray’s bad decision at Indianapolis has left him vulnerable.

Oh yeah, then there’s Chris Buescher raining on everyone’s parade at Pocono and throwing a very unforeseen monkey wrench into things. Though, if you recall, two weeks ago I mentioned the possibility of a well timed rainstorm getting someone buried deep in the standings an upset victory and an invitation to the party.

While Buescher still has some work to do to get in the top 30, for the sake of prognostication purpose, we’ll assume he gets there, so more on him in a moment. Obviously, if Buescher does not make the top 30, then that changes things a great deal, but for his sake, I hope he does, and for the sake of discussion, we’ll assume so.

Austin Dillon +41 (65% two weeks ago at +41)

Dillon had a car that seemed capable of winning on Monday at Pocono and teammate Paul Menard was fast all weekend. That’s got to give the entire Richard Childress team some confidence. What also has to give them confidence is that Dillon is in the exact same place he was two weeks ago, and there now even fewer races in which to see his lead evaporate. Of some concern to Dillon might be that they finished 20th or worse at Sonoma, Bristol, and Richmond earlier this year, and a repeat of that performance would leave the team little room for error at Darlington and Michigan. At this point, it would probably take two bad races or another surprise winner to keep Dillon out of the chase, but as we’ve seen, anything is possible. The upcoming schedule is the only thing keeping Dillon from really being a slam dunk at this point.

80%

Ryan Newman +29 (50% two weeks ago at +50)

While the speed at RCR is promising for Newman, an average finish of 21.5 over the last two races is not. Newman should be in position to be on cruise control into the chase, but instead he’s left to sweat it out. It’s a bit difficult to put too much stock into his performance at Richmond because RCR as a whole is better, but it’s notable how much the entire team struggled at the track that will wrap up the regular season. If Newman gets to Richmond needing to fight his way in, you have to wonder how confident they’ll be. Then again, if you “need” to accomplish something like that, there are definitely worse drivers than Ryan Newman to have wheeling the racecar.

90%

Chase Elliott +25 (85% two weeks ago at +52)

Speaking of going the wrong direction… Elliott suddenly finds himself in real trouble, especially if someone outside of the top 16 wins a race in the next month *cough A.J. Allmendinger cough*. The problem isn’t the speed of the racecar, aside from Indy and Sonoma. The problem is finishing races. It seems pretty simple, based on the speed that’s been in the 24, just stay out of trouble and you’ll be fine. Elliott made a serious rookie mistake Monday that cost him big time. Instead of being 50 points to the good fresh of a top ten run getting some momentum back, the team heads to a road course with zero margin for error the rest of the way. Another bad finish and Elliott is likely to find himself on the outside looking in. And that’s regardless of whether someone behind him in points snares a victory. With a road course, Bristol, Darlington looming, finishing these next five races in one piece and on the lead lap is a daunting enough task. Putting together enough good finishes to hang on to his spot in the chase might be a bit much. If no more than one driver on the outside looking in steals a victory, Elliott would have like his chances if he can string together four top 15 finishes and a top 20. If he can post some top eight finishes like he was doing the first half of the year, he could be in a much more comfortable position when they arrive to Richmond. The pressure is on right now, and so far Elliott and the team aren’t handling it well. A bad weekend at Watkins Glen and the wheels might fall off.

50%

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Monday’s rookie mistake has Chase Elliott in the danger zone and his chase hopes getting closer to being on life support

Jamie McMurray +9 (55% two weeks ago at +27)

An average finish of 19.5 over the last two weeks compared to a 5.5 for his teammate Kyle Larson, and Jamie McMurray suddenly finds himself in major trouble as the regular season winds down. While Larson has five top ten finishes and three top fives in his last ten races, McMurray only has three non plate top ten finishes, and zero top fives at a non plate track all season. While consistency and staying out of trouble have him in contention for a chase birth, the inability to run up front and post strong finishes may very well keep him out. McMurray’s saving grace may wind up being the free falling Elliott who, despite out running McMurray on a weekly basis, has fallen back into McMurray’s clutches by not doing the one thing McMurray manages to do as well as anyone, finish the race. I don’t expect McMurray to hold off his teammate, and if Allmendinger wins this week, or someone else nabs an upset later on, I don’t think McMurray possesses the speed to race his way back in. His hope will be that Chase Elliott continues to struggle.

30%

Kyle Larson -9 (43% two weeks ago at -25)

Even facing a pretty sizable gap two weeks ago, I liked the chances for Larson based on the speed shown in his Target Chevy. Larson certainly has done anything to make me reconsider that confidence. While he’s currently on the outside looking in, and doesn’t need to see Allmendinger get a victory this weekend, few competing for a spot have to feel as confident as Larson and his team does right now. Not only that, Darlington and Bristol are both tracks that he himself could snatch a victory and lock himself into the chase by means of a win. On the flip side, because he’s doing the chasing, he can ill-afford a bad race, certainly in the next couple because he needs to keep the pressure on McMurray and Elliott. So the question will be, how hard does he push it to win a race, and where is the line where he takes what he can get and settles for the points?

70%

Kasey Kahne -29 (32% two weeks ago at -22)

On the positive side, Kahne opens this five race stretch at a road course, where he finished 9th at in Sonoma earlier this year, and he closes it out at Richmond, a place he’s won before and posted his best finish of the year at with a 4th place earlier this season. On a less positive note, Kahne is 29 points out, and stands 45 points behind Elliott, meaning a winner coming out of the top 16 could effectively doom his chances. Kahne has pulled his own rabbit out of a hat before, winning at Atlanta in 2014 in what was a must win situation, so if the situation calls for it, and Kahne is in contention, he’s shown he has what it takes to go and get it. The question will be if this team can find the speed to put him that situation. Nothing would seem to suggest that they can, and with the team sharing a shop with them struggling in their own right to salvage their chase spot, there may not be much teamwork between the two going forward. Kahne doesn’t have the speed to just catch McMurray, and McMurray doesn’t finish poorly enough for Kasey to feel confident he’ll fall back to him. And even if he did, there’s still the matter of Kyle Larson to deal with.

25%

Ryan Blaney -37 (40% two weeks ago at -16)

Perhaps no one has suffered as much in the past two weeks as Blaney. At Indianapolis Blaney was looking at a possible top ten finish, and certainly a top fifteen, before being taken out in a wreck that wasn’t his doing and relegated to a crushing 36th place finish. While they rebounded Monday with a solid 11th place, that’s not going to be good enough, and they know it. Based on McMurray’s average finish, Blaney is in a difficult spot of basically needing to finish inside the top ten in each of the next five races to be able to chase McMurray down, and that’s not even considering that he also finds himself 28 points behind Larson. In other words, Blaney needs the Ganassi cars to suffer problems over the next five races, and he can’t afford any himself. Or, he can go win a race, which isn’t out of the question. Blaney was very strong at Bristol in the spring and the Wood Brothers have a knack for that track. They might be circling that one as their hail mary shot to make the chase.

19%

Trevor Bayne -37 (20% two weeks ago at -14)

Let’s face it, Bayne was fortunate to be as close as he was at that point. Nobody that’s listed as contender runs worse than Bayne on a week to week basis and Bayne’s only real shot was for there to be no more surprise winners, and for those in front of him to continue to have trouble. There is nothing in the way this team has run anywhere besides the restrictor plates to make you think they’re going to suddenly start running in the top ten, much less contending for victories. While a lot can still happen over the next five races to those they’re chasing, let’s be real here, Bayne doesn’t run well enough to really even take advantage of that. Progress has been made at Roush, but not enough has been made with the 6 team.

.25%

Ricky Stenhouse -45 (3% two weeks ago at -41)

Stenhouse is further back with fewer races to go than he was two weeks ago. In other words, his chances were slim, and slim has headed for the door. Bristol is a track that’s been good to him in his career, and depending on what happens at the half mile, a top five run while misfortune striking those in front of him could at least put him in the mix over the final three races of the regular season. Or something really wild could happen and he could win at Thunder Valley. For Stenhouse, they need to get through Watkins Glen without losing any more points, and hope they can make some serious ground at Bristol. If not, their playoff dreams will be vanquished.

2%

From here down, getting in on points isn’t happening. Earnhardt is 56 points out and won’t race this week, so he’ll be even further behind, and let’s face it, at this point, a 56 point deficit with this many drivers to leap frog as well is too much to ask for. So it’s all about getting a win.

Dale Earnhardt Jr’s immediate future is cloudy, and really, perhaps his long term future is. The priority is getting Junior healthy, and this season may be one they’ve already decided to put on the shelf to get ready for 2017. If Junior does come back, Richmond is a place he’s been victorious before. And you know NASCAR loves a good story. He also has stopped long losing streaks at Michigan before as well, so if he waits until after Bristol to return, those are two tracks where a victory is still a possibility.

3.5%

A.J. Allmendinger circles two races each year and those are his chances to make the chase, and he knows it. He missed at Sonoma and now comes to Watkins Glen with one last swing at things. The unfortunate thing is that Allmendinger has run well enough and with enough speed that he should be in contention to get in on points. But it’s been a year from hell in terms of the luck and misfortune for Allmendinger and its lead to immense frustration at the racetrack. Nothing would erase all of that like a win this week at Watkins Glen. Not only would it propel Allmendinger into the chase, it would create a bigger mess and more pressure for a slew of others.

25%

Greg Biffle and his Roush car have been showing more and more speed each week. Enough to win? Doubtful. But don’t count him out at Darlington, a track he experienced great success at back in the mid 2000s, or at Michigan, where fuel mileage and strategy could certainly factor in. Is it likely? Of course not. But hey, neither was Chris Buescher winning.

2%

Others. Okay, I put this at like 0.5% two weeks ago, and low behold an “other” won. So maybe I’ll bump it up this time around. The great thing about NASCAR is that truly, anything can happen.

3.25%

As for Chris Buescher, he’s still six points out of the top 30, and it would be an awful shame to win a race and miss the chase because of that. Six points is barely over one position a race, something that can be done if he simply stays out of trouble. Also assisting him is the fact that he is able to concentrate on two tasks each race, beating Regan Smith and David Ragan, as no two other cars out there matter for this team until they get thru Richmond. Is he a slam dunk to do it? No, and if he doesn’t, it obviously greatly increases the chances for guys like Kahne or Blaney to get back into the chase.

75%

 

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