LOUDON, N.H. — Why is Jimmie Johnson feeling pressure when the statistics say he shouldn’t be?
After all, Johnson posted a fourth-place finish in Sunday’s SYLVANIA 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the second race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Combined with his fifth-place result in the Chase opener at Chicagoland, that’s an average finish of 4.5. The best average finish for any driver in a 10-race Chase is the 4.9 Carl Edwards pegged in 2011.
Edwards, of course, lost that championship to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker because Stewart won five races in the Chase and used the accompanying bonus points to forge the tie. That underscored the importance of victories in the Chase, and that may be one reason why Johnson enters Sunday’s race at Dover with a Victory-Lane-or-bust attitude.
Another concrete reason is that Matt Kenseth won the first two Chase races and holds an 18-point lead over third-place Johnson.
“Yes, to open with a five-four is great,” Johnson said after Sunday’s race. “One-one, like Matt has, is a lot better, but we’re in a good spot. We haven’t given up too many points, and we’re going to one of my best race tracks next week in Dover.
“So I certainly hope to have this Lowe’s Chevrolet in Victory Lane over there.”
Kenseth started the Chase with a three-point edge over Johnson, based on five wins in the first 26 races to Johnson’s four. In the first two Chase races, Johnson has dropped 15 more points to the series leader, but should he really be worried?
History says no.
Never mind that Johnson has been through the pressure cooker of the Chase more often than any other driver. Never mind that he won five straight championships from 2006 through 2010 and has never finished worse than sixth in the final standings.
Never mind that Johnson is the most prolific winner of races in the Chase — ever.
Here are the stats that should comfort him. At only one of the final eight tracks in the Chase does Kenseth have a better career average finish than Johnson. That would be Texas, where Kenseth edges Johnson 8.5 to 9.1.
At every other speedway, Johnson has the advantage. Cumulatively, Johnson’s average finish at the final eight tracks in the Chase is 10.2, which trumps Kenseth’s 14.9 decisively. Take the average difference of 4.7 positions, multiply it by 8 races, and you have 37.6 points — more than enough to overcome Kenseth’s 18-point lead.
Small wonder that Johnson was pointing out the positives after Sunday’s race, noting that his performance at New Hampshire bodes well for the penultimate Chase race at Phoenix, another one-mile flat track.
“We’re getting into the meat of the Chase where there are some great tracks for this Chevrolet that I’m driving, and all these (crew) guys (are) working so hard to make it fast,” Johnson said.
So why is Johnson feeling the stress of chasing Kenseth, and why does he feel a victory at Dover is essential?
Simply put, Kenseth’s past statistics are meaningless, because Kenseth isn’t having an average year.
Four of Kenseth’s series-best seven wins this season have come at tracks where he had never won before, including the first two Chase venues, Chicagoland and New Hampshire. When Kenseth moved from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing this year, he brought with him a wealth of experience and knowledge.
At JGR, he has benefitted from new science, not to mention input from talented teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff has blossomed in partnership with a driver of Kenseth’s stature, and the two have formed a juggernaut that’s greater than the sum of the parts.
That’s why the history that should comfort Johnson brings no joy. That’s why the five-time champ knows that victories and their accompanying bonus points are essential to eat into Kenseth’s lead.
Rumor has it that there’s a new device installed on the dashboard of Johnson’s car for the Dover race — a panic button.
If he doesn’t win at the Monster Mile and doesn’t make a dent in Kenseth’s advantage, it may well be time to push it.