When Jimmie Johnson hit the wall in the closing laps of Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, he also took a serious hit in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings.
The five-time champion blew a tire, smacked the wall, finished 28th and lost roughly 40 percent of the advantage he held entering the race, as his lead over second-place Carl Edwards (eighth Sunday) dwindled to 31 points.
So what, you might say. Johnson is still comfortably in the lead and he’s in no danger of missing the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time in his career. But there’s another reason why Johnson was loath to see the margin shrink.
What it means: Johnson’s wife Chani is expecting the couple’s second child, and the due date is in September. The possibility exists that Johnson may need to miss a race to witness the birth of his child.
Before Michigan, Johnson was more than one full race ahead of Edwards. Now he’s not. Being the regular-season champion in the Cup series isn’t that big a deal, because it pays no points, and the Chase is seeded by number of victories in the first 26 races.
Nevertheless, leading the points before the Chase is set is a benchmark of the quality of one’s program, and Johnson doesn’t want to see any erosion in the standings. Chances are, he’ll come out loaded for bear at Sonoma.
On a miserable day for Hendrick Motorsports, Kasey Kahne also suffered a blown right front tire and smacked the wall. Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew an engine while leading. Jeff Gordon was the innocent victim of an early spin by Bobby Labonte.
Doubtless all three drivers will shake off their bad luck and regroup, but, where the Chase is concerned, the mishaps have them all in positions that range from uncomfortable to downright precarious.
What it means: Kahne lost four positions in the standings and stands 12th, no longer in a Chase-eligible position. Yes, Kahne currently leads the wild-card standings and in fact is the only driver in a wild-card eligible position (11-20 in the standings) with a victory.
But Kahne has to worry about two things: 1) drivers with victories dropping out of the top 10, and 2) drivers with no wins getting one or two and passing him in the standings.
Earnhardt lost three spots to seventh in points. Though he’s still in the top 10, Earnhardt has no wins, and he’s only 32 points ahead of Paul Menard in 11th place. With no wild-card insurance right now, Earnhardt could see his Chase hopes dashed by another DNF or two.
Gordon is in real trouble. He dropped five spots to 16th in points, and he has no victories to help him out in the quest for a potential wild card. Yes, Gordon is only 19 points out of 10th place, but the driver in 10th is upwardly mobile Tony Stewart, whose star is on the rise while Gordon’s clearly is not.
Worse yet, with all the ill fortune that’s befallen him this year, Gordon is starting to sound like a driver who expects the worst to happen. When you have that mind-set, it usually does.
Last year, Hendrick Motorsports got all four of its cars into the Chase by the slimmest of margins. This year, I don’t see it.
Denny Hamlin may have a choice to make, sooner rather than later.
Thanks to a shock absorber issue at Michigan, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota finished 30th and took another blow to his fading hopes of making the Chase after missing four races with a back injury.
Now 26th in the standings, Hamlin is 85 points — nearly two full races — behind Kurt Busch in 20th, the position Hamlin must reach, at a minimum, to be eligible for a wild card. At this point, Hamlin also would need to win at least one, probably two of the final 11 races.
What it means: A last-lap accident at Fontana, Calif., in late March caused the compression fracture of Hamlin’s first lumbar vertebra that kept him out of the car. It also exacerbated a chronic problem Hamlin has with bulging discs, and those are more painful than the fracture was.
Hamlin is considering surgery to correct the problem and said in April that he’ll consider an operation during the season if it becomes obvious that he’s not going to make the Chase.
Though Hamlin still has a slim hope, the time for that choice is fast approaching. One or two more bad races, and Hamlin can resign himself to missing the playoff for the first time in his career.