Jimmie Johnson has led the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver standings since leaving Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in April, when he qualified on the pole, led a race-high 346 laps, and won the race. The victory was his second of 2013 after winning the season-opening Daytona 500. Since then, he and the No. 48 Lowe’s team haven’t looked back, their consistency allowing them to be the first to lock into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Aug. 11 at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
The past three weekends, however, have seen the points lead dwindle after finishes of 40th, 36th and 28th at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway, respectively. Winning the “regular season” is something Johnson and team would like to add to their resume this season despite the fact, as Johnson puts it, “you don’t win anything – not even a T-shirt or a mug” – for the accomplishment.
Another thing the No. 48 Lowe’s team would like is to start the Chase in the top spot. It was a feat Johnson was close to locking down as he owned the top seed over Matt Kenseth prior to the race at Bristol. Both had four wins with Johnson holding the tiebreaker with a next-best finish of second to Kenseth’s fifth. But Kenseth went on to score his fifth win of the season that weekend while Johnson got caught up in someone else’s mess, finishing the aforementioned 36th.
Adding to the mix was last weekend’s win at Atlanta by Kyle Busch, who equaled Johnson’s mark of four wins and two second-place finishes. But the five-time champ still owns that tiebreaker, for now, with a next-best finish of third to Busch’s next-best of fourth.
While it may seem like being in the top-three to start the Chase is good enough, there are several competitors, including Johnson (see his 2004 season), who know that every single point counts. This weekend, the only thing that can give Johnson the top seed when the Chase begins Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., is a win Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
It’s possible, despite the fact that the .75- mile oval ranks in the bottom four, statistically, for Johnson. He does have three wins there and is looking to make it four come Saturday night.