Jump Around: Standings Shuffle with Just Four Races Left Before Miami Championship
Jimmie Johnson drove to his third win in the five Chase races at Charlotte on Saturday (photo courtesy: Geoff Burke, Getty Images Sport)
To get an idea of how fast the NASCAR Championship landscape can change, consider Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon. The four-time Sprint Cup Champion—seeking his fifth Nov. 22 during Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway—jumped from 10th place in the standings after Chase Race 3 to fifth after Chase Race 4 to third after Chase Race 5. Three races, seven spots in the Championship standings.
“All you really want to do is get maximum points,” Gordon said after his fourth-place finish at Charlotte. “We gave it a shot and I’m really excited about this team. We fought hard.”
Never in the 60-year history of stock car racing has a driver won a Championship in NASCAR’s top series without winning a race, which no doubt has three-time Champion Jimmie Johnson—winner of an unprecedented three of the first five Chase races, including Charlotte—smiling.
…But then there’s this: Never has the winner of the fall race at Charlotte gone on to win the NASCAR Championship, which will be crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22. So what does one make of the point standings with just four races remaining until NASCAR’s series-crowning Championship finale in Miami?
Is it possible for a driver to win NASCAR’s biggest prize by mastering points racing but not actually winning a race? The on-track Chase performance of none other than South Florida resident Juan Pablo Montoya has sparked discussion of that possibility.
Montoya’s phenomenal consistency over the first four races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup—all Top 5s—took a hit at Lowe’s Motor Speedway with a 35th-place finish after tangling with fan-favorite Mark Martin on a restart Saturday night. That said, the driver of Earnhardt-Ganassi’s No. 42 Chevy still sits sixth in points at just the halfway point of NASCAR’s playoffs.
“It is what it is,” Montoya said, although he wasn’t the only one to take a hit in Chase Race 5: Four Chase drivers finished 30th or worse at Lowe’s Motor Speedway..
And with four finishes of fourth place or better in the opening quartet of Chase races, the talk of the garages in Charlotte was the possibility of Montoya leapfrogging Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Martin without visiting Victory Lane.
Montoya, for one, doesn’t want to test that theory. He believes that winning races takes on even more importance in the Chase than it does during the regular season.
“In the Chase it’s a different ballgame,” said Montoya. “It’s not about averages, it’s not about finishing fifth, it’s about winning. The only way to win [the Championship] is to score more points than anybody else. It’s not easy. We started the [Chase] season with a 40-point deficit because we didn’t win any races….We are working hard at it.”
Indeed, since the inception of the Chase in 2004, no driver with fewer than three in-season wins has gone on to claim the NASCAR crown. And only Tony Stewart has won the Championship without claiming Victory Lane at least once during the Chase, but he managed to win five times during his 2005 Championship run.
Martin opened the Chase with a win at New Hampshire and finished no worse than seventh in the ensuing three outings before tallying a 17th-place finish at Charlotte.
Gordon, already a NASCAR legend, is slightly amazed when pondering that the frontrunners might maintain this year’s torrid pace in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, which culminates at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22. But he's not ruling out the possibility that it could happen. Consider that Gordon posted an average finish of 5.1 in the 2007 Chase—and still finished second in the NASCAR Championship standings.
Said Gordon: "To compete for this Championship…we understand what we're up against—not only our teammates, but Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart and also the 15th-place finish that we had at New Hampshire. So all we can do is to continue to just push forward, work hard and put the best finishes out there that we can and let the rest of the things take care of themselves."
Those “things” have four more races to take care of themselves before the Champion is crowned in Miami during the Nov. 20-22 Ford Championship Weekend. NASCAR’s ultimate weekend features the series-crowning Championship finales of all three of NASCAR’s top circuits: the Camping World Truck Series (Friday), Nationwide Series (Saturday) and Sprint Cup Series (Sunday). For Friday night’s Truck Championship, all kids 12 and under will be admitted FREE; on Saturday for the Nationwide Championship, all kids 12 and under are just $15; and for Sunday’s Sprint Cup Championship, adult tickets start at just $55. Click here to view great seats available for each race.