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Is Jimmie Johnson really in trouble? What do the numbers say?

   Carl Edwards (R) has been dogging Jimmie Johnson for the NASCAR championship for years now. The numbers say this could be Edwards' year to win it all (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern


    DOVER, Del.
    So Jimmie Johnson is suddenly in a deep hole in the NASCAR championship?
    Gimme a break.
    The guy can rip off four straight wins in a heartbeat. And none of his rivals has shown enough clout yet to put Five-Time down for the count, not by a long-shot.

   In fact the season overall has been pretty jumbled, if anyone has been trying to make any sense of things.
   For example, despite Tony Stewart's two wins, well, he has had a good run of a few weeks, but that doesn't a champion make. And this is not a great track for him. He'll have to do something here to prove he's got staying power in this 10-week title chase.

   Johnson insists Sunday's Dover 400 "is really important" for his team. (Of course it's not; in his 2006 title run Johnson was 165 points down and reeling midway through the chase, but then caught fire and charged decisively to the title.)
   "I don't think we're in a position where it's win or nothing….but we need to get a top-three here," Johnson says.
    Maybe, maybe not.
   There are still eight races left, plenty of time to mount a charge. Particularly if his challengers continue to falter as they have been.

     Carl Edwards (R) can get quite animated about things. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And Johnson, of course, has been strong enough, certainly, to win the first two chase races outright.
    "When we look at how well we performed at Chicago, fuel got us there," Johnson says. "W should have been top-three and we ended up 10th.
    "Last weekend (at Loudon, N.H.), even with some of the 'creative radio chatter' that took place (Johnson's snapping at crew chief Chad Knaus), I was in position to finish probably top-10 if I didn't have that contact with Kyle Busch; that was just racing stuff.
    "So if could we do a 'take back' and didn't have an 18th , and had a 10th at Loudon, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation.
    "I don't think we're looking for the home run by any means right now, just finishing where we should.
    "At Chicago we didn't have the fortune to finish where we should have; that is just the way it works with fuel mileage. Last weekend was some contact on-track."
    Pressure, yes. But most of his rivals, except perhaps Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman, seem to be feeling the championship pressure more than Johnson right now.
   But then he's been here before. And won the title. Five times.

    Jimmie Johnson (L) says it's still too early in the chase to start making predictions. In fact he says this entire season has been pretty weird so far (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Sizing up the chase at the moment, Johnson says may be difficult, given the two gas mileage finishes to open the playoffs.
   And it has been, he points out, a weird season pretty much all the way around. For example, if Tony Stewart hadn't stumbled at Las Vegas and given that race to Carl Edwards, then Edwards could very well be coming into this 400 winless this season.
   Dominant driver?
   Nope, no one really. Not for any decent stretch.
   "It has been really tough to have a driver and team stay on top for a long period of time," Johnson says. "A lot of drivers spoke to that before the chase started.
    "If you go back to Richmond, there was a stretch there where Tony wasn't running well. And in some of Tony's own comments, you could tell the place where they were mentally. It wasn't in a true championship mindset.
    "Well, two weeks of winning can certainly turn that around….
    "But my point is we just don't know (about this season's playoffs yet). We all want to predict now; but we can't.
    "Whoever does catch fire and can stay consistent, they can have a run-away year.
     "But I haven't seen anything to show me that it is going to be a run-away year for anyone."


     Carl Edwards (L), yes, a title contender, and of course Jimmie Johnson (R). But they both better keep an eye on the guy in the middle, Ryan Newman. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Okay, then, let's look at the numbers.
    Now just what this new point system really means, and how it might actually play out, is unclear. Maybe we should try to translate the new points into the old points each week, to have some idea of what's really going on.
    However after 28 of the season's 36 events, we do have plenty of facts and figures to show us something.
    What do the numbers tell us?
    Let's examine some of them.

    Championship points?
    How many different ways are there to determine a NASCAR champion?
    Wins, of course.
    That would put Kyle Busch (4) and Kevin Harvick (4) atop the standings at the moment, just ahead of Jeff Gordon (3) and Brad Keselowski (3). Tony Stewart (2) and Matt Kenseth (2) would be right there behind them. Chasers with one win each – Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, and Denny Hamlin. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is winless.

    Maybe with laps led as any tie-breaker.
    So let's look at this season's lap leaders (pretty much dominated by the playoff drivers). This should be a good indication of who's got speed on the tour's midsized tracks, and who doesn't:
    On the big tracks (not counting plate races at Daytona and Talladega):

    Kyle Busch has led 579 laps
    Jeff Gordon (528)
    Kurt Busch (496)
    Matt Kenseth (462)
    Carl Edwards (443)
    Tony Stewart (373)
    Jimmie Johnson (337)
    Ryan Newman (246)
    Denny Hamlin (242)
    Brad Keselowski (170)
    Kevin Harvick (53)
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12)

    In the tour's three plate races:
    Ryan Newman led 68 laps
    Kurt Busch (44)
    Kevin Harvick (30)
    Matt Kenseth (22)
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. (21)
    Kyle Busch (17)
    Jimmie Johnson (14)
    Brad Keselowski (12)
    Denny Hamlin (11)
    Jeff Gordon (11)
    Carl Edwards (9)
    Tony Stewart (1)


    One way of looking at one-mile Phoenix (which has just been repaved, essentially making it a wild card event) is to see which title contenders did how well at the two Richmond and two Loudon races, tracks rather similar to Phoenix:

    Kyle Busch (235 laps led)
    Kevin Harvick (203)
   Ryan Newman (181)
   Carl Edwards (125)
   Jeff Gordon (108)
    Kurt Busch (70)
   Jimmie Johnson (58)
   Tony Stewart (50)
   Denny Hamlin (38)
   Matt Kenseth (31)
   Brad Keselowski (1)


There will be new asphalt at Phoenix for the Nov. 13th race....so will Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch still have dominant cars on the one-mile oval? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The validity of the sport's current points system is yet to be decided. And there are of course still questions about the validity of the 'chase' format itself in determining a true champion in this sport.
   But one logical way to assess who's been the best overall so far is by Best Average Finish, over the full season:
    According to those finishes over the year's first 28 (of 36) events, the top performers look like this:

   1 – Carl Edwards              (his average finish has been 10.643)
   2 – Jimmie Johnson          (10.857)
   3 – Kevin Harvick            (11.286)
   4 – Kyle Busch                 (11.321)
   5 – Jeff Gordon                (11.750)
   6 – Matt Kenseth             (12.036)
   7 – Kurt Busch                (12.964)
   8 – Tony Stewart             (13.286)
   9 – Ryan Newman           (13.321)
  10 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.    (13.964)
  11 – Brad Keselowski      (14.714)
  12 – AJ Allmendinger*      (16.643)

   *AJ Allmendinger is not in the chase, but has a better season record than Denny Hamlin, who is in the chase.


   Ryan Newman, something of a surprise this season. Can he challenge for the championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And what to make about Sunday's Dover 400?
   Well, checking the drivers' career average finishes here, the finishing order Sunday evening should look like this:

   (Best Average Finish at Dover over a career)

   1 – Carl Edwards               (7.643)
   2 – Jimmie Johnson           (9.632)
   3 – Ryan Newman             (10.895)
   4 – Greg Biffle                   (11.444)
   5 – Jeff Gordon                  (12.243)
   6 – Mark Martin                (12.300)
   7 – Matt Kenseth               (12.440)
   8 – Tony Stewart               (12.520)
   9 – Kyle Busch                  (13.846)
  10—Clint Bowyer              (14.818)
  11 – Jeff Burton                 (15.343)
  12 – Martin Truex Jr.         (16.0)

   But a better indication of what to expect here, among the 12 playoff teams, might be the Top Average Finishes over the past three years here, which shows this:

  1--  Matt Kenseth            (5.0)
  2 – Jimmie Johnson        (5.714)
  3 – Carl Edwards           (6.14)
  4 – Mark Martin*             (9.7)
  5 -- Jeff Gordon             (11.857)
  6 – Ryan Newman          (12.428)
  7 – Kurt Busch               (14.428)
  8 – Kevin Harvick          (15.0)
  9 – Kyle Busch               (15.571)
  10 – Tony Stewart          (17.428)
  11 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.  (22.285)
  12 – Denny Hamlin         (24.0)

   * Mark Martin is not in the chase.

   Kyle Busch knows how to win races, but can he win this championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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