By Matt Weaver – With Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch dominating the first two Chase races, it may have been easy to overlook Jimmie Johnson.
After all, Johnson entered the Chase with four straight sub-30th finishes and was written off by many as a title long shot.
Much of that is likely the long-standing Johnson hate, something that’s just heating up with his fifth victory of the season at Dover on Sunday afternoon.
His victory, combined with a seventh place by Kenseth acts as a confirmation that Johnson will be a factor in the championship this season. Kenseth now leads by eight over Johnson with Kyle Busch lurking just 12 points out of the top spot.
Still a three-team battle
The discussion entering Dover was that the Chase was already down to three teams in Kenseth, Johnson and Busch. And despite the other Chasers’ insistence that they would still be a factor, their actions did not entirety back it up.
Johnson won, Busch finished fifth and Kenseth still scored more points than six rival Chasers. Merely scoring ‘good finishes’ won’t be enough from here on out.
And Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the perfect example.
Dale Jr. comes just short
It’s assumed that every Chaser can afford one mulligan (or bad finish) but that’s only of said team can win to offset it. With finishes of sixth and now second, Earnhardt is giving it his best shot but he may look back on Sunday as a missed opportunity.
After fighting back from a pit road entry mistake, Earnhardt methodically worked his way to the front and was the first car with four tires on the final restart — in fourth.
Earnhardt quickly moved into second and just couldn’t overtake his teammate, Johnson who survived after taking just two tires.
It’s one of the grittiest performances of Earnhardt’s season — at one of his better tracks — but only moved him up to 10th in the standings and 57 points out. But given that he’s only 18 points out of fourth, this could still be a very successful season for NASCAR’S most popular driver.
Five-Time forget me not
Earnhardt’s inability to close on Johnson will be seen as a disappointment, especially by his victory rabid fan base.
At the end of the day, Earnhardt is just the latest victim of the Jimmie Johnson buzzsaw. Be it clean air or undeniable talent, Johnson had the winning formula on Sunday.
Who ultimately wins the Chase for the Championship is still undecided but as has been the case for most of the format’s tenure, the title hunt will run through Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team.