This is nothing new for Jimmie Johnson.
Some of us speculated that it would happen at some point during the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, perhaps later than sooner – but eventually.
Others boldly decreed it wouldn’t happen at all.
Ah, but it has. Johnson is once again atop the point standings and is now acknowledged as the man to beat for the championship.
Of course you realize that, given he is the winner of five consecutive titles, he’s in familiar territory. Hey, it’s dejavu all over again.
“I’m real happy with the way things have gone here in the last three or four months,” said Johnson, a member of the Hendrick Motorsports stable. “We have had a lot of speed and a lot of great results. We have been to victory lane at the Brickyard and certainly in position at Pocono for that.
“I’m disappointed that we left some bonus points on the table at Pocono and I’m pretty thankful to have finished 14th the way things unfolded there.
“Then we had a good run at Watkins Glen.”
If the Chase For The Sprint Cup began today, Johnson would be ranked No. 1 because he leads the top 10 in points and has three victories – tied for the most this season and worth 30 bonus points in the re-seeding.
This season Johnson’s path to the points lead has been long, but good yearlong performances, and good fortune, have made the difference.
As has been pointed out more than once, if this year’s superspeedway races aren’t factored in, Johnson has only three finishes outside the top 10 in 22 races.
Johnson’s season started out horribly. He finished 42nd in the Daytona 500 following a crash on the second lap. That meant he was 42ndin points.
Worse, the Hendrick team failed a pre-race inspection when NASCAR discovered abnormalities in the C-posts of its Chevrolet.
Three days after the 500 NASCAR levied severe penalties against the Hendrick team, Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus.
Among many other things Johnson was docked 25 driver points. That would have dropped him from 42nd in points into near oblivion.
If the situation had remained it’s very doubtful Johnson would now be the points leader.
But it turned out that Johnson’s penalty was overturned on appeal – something that rarely happens in NASCAR – and his lost points were restored.
Call it a lucky break or anything you will, but it certainly benefitted Johnson’s cause.
Johnson was fourth in points after Pocono. He moved into first place with a third-place finish at Watkins Glen this past Sunday.
The driver he replaced atop the standings was Dale Earnhardt Jr., his teammate at Hendrick who dropped to fourth after a 28th-place run at the Glen.
Earnhardt Jr. has never been lower than fifth in points all season long and took the top position after finishing fourth at Indianapolis.
The points leaderboard is crowded. Only 17 points separate the top four. Former leader Greg Biffle is just one point behind Johnson. Matt Kenseth is third, just two points back.
Earnhardt Jr. is 17 points in arrears.
It’s a clear indication that things could get shuffled quickly, perhaps as early as this weekend’s race at Michigan.
Undoubtedly, the frontrunners are very aware of this.
However, Earnhardt Jr. maintains he’s in a secure position regardless of what happens.
“You don’t want to miss the Chase being foolish,” said Earnhardt Jr., who has completed every lap of every race this season save for Pocono and the Glen. “Now we feel like we’ve got a good position to do that. In these last few races we can kind of just throw it all out there.
“If we fall back in points because we made a few mistakes, and some gambles didn’t pay off, it’s not a big deal. We know what kind of season we’ve had and we know we’ve got a lot to be proud of.
“I think, mentally, we can go into the Chase pretty excited about our chances.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s chances for victory at Michigan appear to be very good. He’s won there twice, including in June of this year, when he ended a losing streak dating back to 2010.
“The track has always been fun for me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s really wide and up until they repaved it, you really used the whole race track in the corner.
“That’s perfect, you can’t ask for any better situation than when cars go through the corner and everybody is sort of using a different line.
“That’s what you want. That’s the kind of race track you hope and pray to build.”
Johnson’s fortunes at Michigan haven’t been as good. He’s never won at the two-mile track. It is one of five on which he has not won.
But that doesn’t mean he dislikes it.
“I’m not really sure what to expect,” he said. “There was tire testing that went on there so I’m pretty sure we are going to be going fast going back.
“It’s one of the fastest tracks we go to, with plenty of room, and I don’t expect that to change.”
If Johnson wins at Michigan he will lock up at least a “wildcard” slot in the Chase. But, given his record there, that might be a tall order.
Incidentally, the drivers ranked among the top four in the standings can clinch a top-10 spot in the Chase at Michigan.
The quartet locks itself in with a lead of 145 points over the 11th-place driver with just three races remaining before the Chase begins.
But it is Johnson who, once again, is leading the pack. For another driver to win the championship he’s going to have to go through him.
It took a while for Johnson to put himself in that position, but he did it.
As a motorsports journalist wrote in March:
“For Jimmie Johnson to make up lost ground, and at times a lot of it, to win a Sprint Cup championship is something he’s done before.
“Understand, he doesn’t like to do it that way – who would? – but it was required that he be equal to the task. He was.”
That guy seems to be very perceptive. Don’t remember his name, though.