LOUDON, N.H. — There’s a pointed message that the 11 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contenders other than Jimmie Johnson need to heed — right now.
It’s time to play roughhouse. It’s time to mix it up. It’s time to change the game.
Otherwise, the Sprint Cup Series will have a six-time champion rather than a five-time champion.
Johnson hasn’t had the fastest car in either of the first two Chase races. He had the second fastest car at both Chicagoland and New Hampshire and finished right where he should have in both cases — second.
But two seconds equal first in the standings by one point over Chicagoland winner Brad Keselowski and by seven over New Hampshire victor Denny Hamlin in third.
Now the Chase goes to Dover, where Johnson has seven wins — including one earlier this year — and an average finish of 8.9. Hamlin, on the other hand, has two top 10s in his last 10 Dover races and a career average finish there of 20.5.
In five starts at Dover, Keselowski has a best finish of 12th and an average of 17.0. If next Sunday’s AAA 400 follows form, Johnson will expand his Chase lead and build a head of steam toward championship No. 6.
That’s why it’s time for the other guys to drop gloves and fight.
True, Johnson still has to get past the Oct. 7 event Talladega, which he fears more than any other race in the Chase. Johnson hasn’t finished a restrictor-plate race this year and has said in the past that he’d gladly take a top 10 at NASCAR’s longest closed course and watch the race from his couch.
It would be a mistake, however, for Johnson’s rivals to depend on Talladega to throw a monkey wrench into the championship plans of the No. 48 team.
The time to act is now.
First, in a general sense, it’s time to put a stop to the sort of genteel racing we’ve seen in the first two Chase events. Competitors not in the Chase have been driving on eggshells, ever wary of affecting the championship outcome.
Drivers in the Chase have been racing each other with inordinate respect, giving each other a wide berth. When Tony Stewart pulled to the inside to allow the faster car of Kevin Harvick to pass him on the frontstretch during Sunday’s race at Loudon, they might as well have passed a jar of Grey Poupon from one car to another.
New Hampshire had nothing that remotely resembled a racing incident. Aside from a planned competition caution at Lap 40 and three yellows for debris, there was nothing to slow Hamlin’s charge to the checkers in the Foregone Conclusion 300.
To make this a memorable Chase, drivers need to be less worried about making an irretrievable mistake and more aggressive in their approach to the competition.
Specifically, if the other 11 hope to beat Johnson, they must put him off his game. No incident has ever gotten under the five-time champion’s skin as much the one on Lap 3 of the 2009 Chase race at Texas, when Sam Hornish Jr. wrecked Johnson and cut his points lead in half.
Obviously rattled by the untimely crash, Johnson nevertheless had a big enough advantage to lock up the title over the final two races.
At this point, though, there are eight Chase races left, plenty of time to make a difference. So why not consider roughing up the 48 car on a restart, or giving it an occasional love tap? It’s time to stop taking the command “Gentlemen, start your engines” so seriously. The Chase doesn’t need gentlemen.
Otherwise, we’ll spend the next year looking at a photo of Johnson with six Sprint Cup trophies on every weekly update book and media guide.
Come to think of it, one of the Chase drivers has a teammate named Hornish…