Paulk: Johnson's past mastery bodes well at Brickyard
The Brickyard 400 may not be the biggest race of the Sprint Cup season, but it's likely to separate the championship contenders from the pretenders.
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson has established he's the most dominant driver on the circuit this season.
He has been pushed some by Matt Kenseth, but unless he falters as he did in last year's season finale, his coronation as six-time champion seems inevitable.
In sweeping both races at Daytona and winning at Pocono, Johnson enters Sunday's race as the clear favorite and will start on the front row.
A victory at the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway will bolster the already immeasurable confidence of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
If history is a barometer of success, then Johnson is in a perfect place. He is a four-time winner at the Brickyard — a track where his uncanny blend of patience and aggressiveness has yielded dividends.
“I think he will be fast, as usual,” Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I'll be surprised if they're not one of the more competitive teams. It always seems like there's somebody else that ends up running well.”
Indeed, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart have pressed Johnson at the Brickyard. And they'll need to be mistake-free if they are going to outhustle Johnson to the checkered flag and kiss the perfectly aligned bricks near the finish line.
“They certainly are in championship form, and I'd have to put them at the top of the list of teams to beat,” said Gordon, a four-time winner at the Brickyard. “For the rest of us, we're going to put all that aside and run our race to see if we can finish ahead of the 48.
“If you can do that, you're probably going to win this race and be proud of that accomplishment. I hope there were teams that felt that way when we were winning here. But I think they might be taking it to another level.”
In reality, only Kenseth can keep Johnson in check. Kenseth, tied with Johnson with four wins, can't afford an uneven performance like those that have left him sixth in points instead of second ahead of Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards, who have only a single win between them.
For Bowyer, he needs a win this weekend to at least show Johnson he packs a big enough punch to tangle with him during the 10-race Chase.
“I'm certainly not right behind Jimmie, but I guess I'm the closest person to him,” said Bowyer, who trails Johnson by 56 points. “We've done a great job at being consistent, and that's what I like to focus on and then especially working into the Chase.
“I think these summer months have always sort of been difficult for me in my past, and what I've seen out of my team in these summer months I really like a lot, and it excites me about our chances for the Chase.”
Bowyer's Michael Waltrip Racing teammates — Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers — both have captured checkered flags this season.
But Bowyer's consistency has positioned him to advance into the postseason. Truex could slide in as a wild card if he finishes outside the top 10.
“You can win the championship being consistently strong,” Bowyer said.
“We're second in points being consistently strong. I feel like — with an exception of one — we've covered our bases. We've done a good job of being there each and every week.”
Bowyer stumbled some at New Hampshire, but the No. 15 Toyota was as strong as Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet and Kenseth's No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
“It's a humbling sport,” Bowyer said. “Out of three races before (New Hampshire) were all solid top-fives. That's what I feel like where our team's at right now. We're a top-five team week in and week out. And if you do that, I know if you're going to get your wins.
“I'm really not concerned about that. Being consistent, staying in the hunt each and every weekend is what's going to give you a shot at a championship.”
Still, Bowyer has to flex his muscles at the Brickyard to get Johnson's attention.
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib. Listen to the Auto Racing Show with Ralph N. Paulk every Friday on TribLive Radio at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.