Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Johnson trying to make history

Posted by Eric Fisher On September 17

Defending champion Jimmie Johnson is shooting for his eighth overall NASCAR title, but he is almost an afterthought as the 10-race playoffs begin.

The focus seems to be on points leader Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch, not on the seven-time champion, who is tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most career NASCAR championships.

Why is Johnson being overlooked? Johnson ranks fifth in points and has three wins this season; however, since winning at Dover on June 4, Johnson has only finished in the Top 10 twice – and both of them were 10th-place finishes. Even though he hasn’t had a good summer, it would be foolish to count out Johnson when evaluating the playoff contenders.

There are 16 drivers in the playoff field. Although the championship battle is no longer referred to as The Chase, it remains a 10-race competition, with four drivers eliminated after every third race. The first segment, which starts with the Tale of the Turtles 400 on Sunday (3 p.m.), ends at Dover on Oct. 1 with the Apache Warrior 400 presented by Lucas Oil.

Let’s evaluate the championship chances of the 16-driver playoff field. By the way, I correctly predicted 14 of the 16 drivers who would qualify for the playoffs, with my mistakes being not including Kasey Kahne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. instead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano, whose absence is shocking.


Ryan Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jamie McMurray. Stenhouse broke through with two victories this year, but both were at restrictor-plate tracks. The only restrictor-plate race in the playoffs is the Alabama 500 at Talladega on Oct. 15, but Stenhouse has to make it through the first stage in order to get there. Blaney is the preseason playoff pick that gave me the most pride. He’s capable of making some noise in the playoffs, but I don’t see Wood Brothers Racing truly being a championship contender against the larger, more established teams. McMurray is in the playoffs for the third straight year, but he hasn’t demonstrated that he can do much once he qualifies.


Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon. It’s only out of respect that Kenseth, a former NASCAR champion, wasn’t included in the “no chance” category. He hasn’t won a race this year. Kahne is only in the playoff field because he won a race. His average finish this season 20.3. Kahne, who still doesn’t have a ride for next season, could drive very aggressively as he attempts to prove his worth. Dillon has a bright future, but his average finish this year (19.5) is only slightly better than Kahne’s.


Experience is the only reason that Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch aren’t included in the “extreme long shots” category. Unlike Kenseth and McMurray, Newman and Busch both won races this season. Both Newman and Busch have also been driving fairly well during the final stretch before the playoffs.


Chase Elliott didn’t win a race this year, but, with 14 Top 10 finishes and six in the Top 5, Elliott could be on the verge of breaking through into the upper echelon. He finished 10th overall despite not winning a race. A trip or two to Victory Lane could put him in the championship picture. Chicago and Dover, site of two of the first three playoff races, have been good tracks for Elliott during his short career.


Truex, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin. I have expanded the top contenders list from six in 2016 to seven this year. Truex is the points leader, entering the playoffs with a 20-point advantage on Kyle Larson. How can the top two drivers be left out of the top contenders category? Keselowski, Johnson (twice), Harvick and Busch have combined to win the last five championships, so it is wise to include them in this category. Hamlin won at New Hampshire, the second race in the first playoff stage, and won at Darlington during Labor Day Weekend, completing a stretch in which only finished outside the top four twice in eight races.

How will they finish after the 10-race playoffs?

5. Johnson

4. Larson

3. Hamlin

2. Truex

1. Kyle Busch, who didn’t pick up his first victory until July 30 at Pocono, wins his second NASCAR championship in three years.

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