If the raw data means anything – feel free to interpret it as you wish – Jimmie Johnson will breeze through the next round of NASCAR’s 4-round, 10-race, championship-deciding Playoff series. The 6-time champion for Hendrick Motorsports has more victories (13) and more top-10 finishes (48) than any of the 11 other drivers who advanced through Round 1 and are headed for Round 2.
After Sunday afternoon’s Apache Warrior 400 at Dover, those drivers are Martin Truex Jr., Dover winner Kyle Busch (-18 points behind the leader), Kyle Larson (-25), Brad Keselowski (-39), Johnson (-42), Kevin Harvick (-44), Denny Hamlin (-46), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-49), Ryan Blaney (-51), Dover runner-up Chase Elliott (-53), Matt Kenseth (-54), and Jamie McMurray (-56). Ryan Newman fell 2 points below the cutoff line, teammate Austin Dillon was 4 below, Kasey Kahne missed Round 2 by 23 points, and Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch missed advancing by 25 points.
The next 3-race series begins at Charlotte next weekend, goes to Talladega on Oct. 15, and features another elimination race at Kansas City on Oct. 22. Round 1 cut the original 16-driver field to 12 and Round 2 will cut the championship contenders down to 7 Round 3 to determine the final 4 will follow consecutively at Martinsville on Oct. 29, Fort Worth on Nov. 7, and Phoenix on Nov. 12. The season-ending Ford 400 will be on Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The highest finisher among the final 4 is the champion, regardless of where they are at the checkered flag.
Ironically, the last 3 NASCAR champions under the current 16-driver elimination format won the title by winning the Homestead 400-miler: Harvick in 2014, Kyle Busch in 2015, and Johnson last year. Between 2003-2013, the championship was determined by points earned by drivers who qualified for the 10-race Playoffs based on their performances in the 26-race regular season.
Johnson has 8 victories at Charlotte, 2 at Talladega, and 3 at Kansas City. Compare those 13 victories at the next 3 tracks to the 6 for Keselowski and Harvick, the 5 for Truex and Kenseth, the 4 for McMurray, the 2 for Kyle Busch and Hamlin, and the one for Stenhouse. Despite having far more wins than anyone else, Johnson’s advantage in combined top-10’s at the next tracks isn’t as overwhelming: 48 for him compared to the 43 for Truex and Kenseth, and the 41 for Harvick.
Of more immediate concern: Johnson got the latest of his 8 Charlotte victories a year ago this month. Truex got the latest of his 2 in the spring of 2016, when he led an astonishing 392 of 400 laps for a Cup Series record 588 miles. Harvick last won at Charlotte in the fall of 2014, Keselowski in the fall of 2013, Kenseth in the fall of 2011, and McMurray in the fall of 2010.
NASCAR Driver Points after Dover