A New Champ Would Be Nice, But Numbers Favor Johnson

It’s now official. The Chase starts Sunday with the running of the Geico 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway.

The event is the first of 10 that are part of NASCAR’s “playoff” system that will determine the 2011 season champion.

I’m sure you know this, but already the question has been asked, repeatedly, “Who will win the title?”

Attention media, bloggers, fans and all other interested parties: Let the predictions, prognostications and outright guesses begin.

And why shouldn’t they? Motorsports fans and media are just like those in other sports. At the time a championship is on the line, that’s usually when interest reaches its highest level.

So folks have their opinions on which individual or team they think will win – or, let’s face it, on which individual or team they WANT to win.

I suspect there are many NASCAR fans who do not want to see Jimmie Johnson win a sixth consecutive title. They want to see something new. They want to see someone different pose with the championship trophy.

Besides, to see one guy win championship after championship is downright boring. Many fans are tired of it and have said so.

It might be boring but you really can’t blame Johnson. The goal of every driver – and they are all highly competitive – is to win races and championships. Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports have used their formidable resources and talents to do just that for five years running.

Which doesn’t mean, of course, that they intend to stop doing so. They will race hard for a sixth title and if they don’t get it this year, there’s always the next … and the next.

That said, I am one of those who also would like to see someone else win the championship. No knock against Johnson, but I think it would be good for NASCAR to have a new winner. I think it would enliven the sport and promote more interest.

But who might it be?

There’s Kyle Busch, for example. He heads into the weekend No. 1 in points with four victories for the season. He’s tied with Kevin Harvick for the highest number of wins this year.

Busch certainly has a penchant for winning races in all three of NASCAR’s national touring series. Now if he can keep that up over the next 10 races, he’s in.

The key word is “if.” Last year Busch didn’t win and finished 13th or worse in six of the 10 races. That ain’t going to cut in. He finished eighth in points in 2010.

Should he win the title, Busch would perhaps be one of the least popular champs ever. I’m thinking he doesn’t care.

A lot of people figured Carl Edwards would be the man to unseat Johnson this year and, eventually, that may well be the case.

I think many folks thought he’d run a little better this season, but the truth is he has as many wins and top-10 finishes as Johnson. He also has one more top-five.

However, Johnson is having something of an off year – for him, anyway – which, to many, means he’s vulnerable in the Chase. He is seeded sixth in the “playoffs” where Edwards is fifth.

Harvick, the lone Richard Childress Racing representative, also has four wins on the year and has earned a reputation, during this season, as a driver who pulls out wins with his proficiency in the closing laps. He’s the No. 2 seed.

Jeff Gordon, ranked third, seems to be a man on a mission. His performances over the last eight races – one win, six top-10 finishes – have put him on a roll that could lead to a fifth career title.

You know, it might be fun to see Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom struggled to make the Chase, win the championship.

It’s the same for Denny Hamlin, who hung on to earn a “wildcard” entry. And you have to admit it would be a real stunner if upstart Brad Keselowski became the champ.

I think I would enjoy any of those scenarios and I suspect you might, as well. But, personally, I think the best shots to upend Johnson are Gordon, Edwards, Harvick and Busch.

However, let’s be real, folks.

It might not sit well with everybody, but everybody has to admit, if grudgingly, that Johnson has the best career Chase numbers.

He’s the only driver to qualify for every Chase since the format made its debut in 2004. He’s finished worse than second only once, in 2005 when he was fifth, since the beginning of the “playoffs.”

Johnson has 21 wins in 70 Chase races. He’s had at least one win in each of seven seasons.

Johnson finished 25th last year in the Chase’s first race at Loudon. He then reeled off nine straight top-10 finishes, including a win at Dover and runnerup finishes at Kansas and Homestead.

It’s obvious no one does it better than Johnson, who, obviously, is greatly assisted by crew chief Chad Knaus and the Hendrick team.

So, again, the odds are with him. If he wins a sixth championship, it might not please everyone. But then, no one should be surprised.

And your prediction is ….?

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