Jimmie Johnson has been Mr. Consistency in the Chase thus far. He finished runner-up in the first two races and a solid fourth last week in Dover. Even with all those that consistency, he still trails Brad Keselowski by five points heading into this weekend’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Unfortunately for Johnson, this could be the race where he loses the Chase.
Johnson has rarely fared well at Talladega. Outside of his win last spring, he has only one other win at the high-banked 2.66-mile oval and has just five top fives in 21 races there. He has an average finish of 17.7 at ‘Dega, making it his second-worst track statistically.
To make matters worse for Johnson, he’s had huge plate struggles recently and has yet to finish a plate race this season. He finished 42nd in the season opening race at Daytona in February, 35th in Talladega in May, and 36th in the return trip to Daytona in July. In his last 11 plate races dating back to the Daytona 500 in 2010, Johnson has six finishes of 30th or worse, nine finishes of 20th or worse, and only one top five. He’s been caught up in seven incidents in those 11 races.
Usually, to succeed at the restrictor plate tracks you have to have momentum and confidence. Johnson has neither right now racing with plate racing. The tracks seem to have a mind of their own and sniff that out. Johnson, could very well get caught up in yet another incident and finish outside the top 35 for all four plate races this year. That could not only hurt his chances at a title, but end them.
The reason for that is because Keselowski is very good at Talladega. In five of his seven career Talladega races, he’s finished inside the top 10, including three of the last four. He won his first career race there in his first ever start at ‘Dega in 2009 and won at the track again back in May. Keselowski also tallied a fourth in this race last year, so it’s safe to say this is one of his better tracks.
Not only does Keselowski have confidence and momentum at Talladega, he also has it on the season. He’s gotten inside Johnson’s head. Johnson has been consistent, but Keselowski has been winning. He’s won two of the three Chase races thus far and has a great chance of winning a third Chase race this weekend.
It wouldn’t be far fetched to see Keselowski open a 40+ point lead on Johnson leaving Talladega this weekend heading into the next race at Charlotte. And the upcoming tracks are all good for Keselowski, so with even decent luck he could hold a huge advantage over Johnson heading into the second-to-last race of the year in Phoenix.
That pressure to performcould actually force Johnson into bad situations on Sunday and I can see trouble ahead for the five-time champion. Talladega could be the turning point of the championship battle between Keselwoski and Johnson.
At Richmond before the Chase, Johnson was asked if he had a plan for surviving Talladega. Johnson laughed and joked that he heard that NASCAR was considering taking Talladega out of the Chase, an idea he professed to be very much in favor of in light of his struggles there. But here we are, and Johnson’s championships hopes could hinge on his ability to survive on Sunday.
I’ll end this article with a word of caution for the other championship hopefuls. As much as Johnson dislikes having to go to Talladega during the Chase, if Johnson does manage a top-10 on Sunday, the rest of the field had better look out: the other four times that’s happened during the Chase era, Johnson has gone on to win the title.