By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
Golden horseshoe or not Jimmie Johnson has officially been dethroned as the favorite to win the championship in 2010.
On Sunday in the Brickyard 400 Johnson started from the outside pole position, and led a lap early in the event. However things nose-dived from there for the 48 team.
Before the race was over Johnson and Chad Knaus were left shaking their heads wondering what went wrong. The team changed both front shocks, tried utilizing spring rubbers, and all sorts of other changes to correct an ill-handling car… to no avail. The end result was a disappointing 22nd-place finish at Indianapolis for the four-time Sprint Cup champion.
“We had real high expectations for the day, but we had real bad understeer all day.” Johnson said. He would continue to try to spin it into a positive by saying that this is just one race, but this isn’t just any ‘one race’.
Indy is possibly the best test to see where your team is down the stretch for the championship, because to run well your car must perform well in every aspect.
You must have the horsepower to reach high speeds down the long straightaways, you must have great brakes to get your car whoaed up in time for the sharp 90-degree turns, and lastly your car must handle superbly through those turns or you’ll easily slap the wall and end your day.
When you take all of that into account it’s no wonder that eight winners of the Brickyard have gone on to win the championship in that very season. What’s particularly damning for Johnson as far as the championship goes is that in the 16 previous editions of the Brickyard the eventual champion has only finished worse than tenth twice.
That means that 87.5 percent of the time the champion is a top-ten finisher at the Brickyard 400. This stat is one that doesn’t lie.
The man who finished second Sunday was Kevin Harvick.
Harvick has led the point standings for virtually the entire season, but people keep saying that when the chase starts he will be a lap behind to cars like Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson. Well after what I saw Sunday I must kindly say nay to that notion.
Harvick was asked about his deficit in the win column and what he thinks it means for his chase hopes.
“You know we’ve won a couple times this year, been in contention to win a few more. I didn’t see the 48 or the 11 today, so … you figure it out”. Harvick said.
I couldn’t agree more with the driver of the no. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet. At a track that is basically the benchmark for everything that your car must do to win the championship the three championship favorites coming into this week came up short. Denny Hamlin (15th), Jimmie Johnson (22nd), and Jeff Gordon (23rd) had rough days and at no point looked to be ready to compete for the victory.
I know that if the chase started today Johnson and Hamlin would be tied for the points lead by virtue of their five victories each, but in reality where has Hamlin been lately?
Since his last win (five races ago) Hamlin has had just one top-ten finish, and his average finish is a measly 19th. His recent struggles to me show a team that may have peaked too early. Hamlin spoke to reporters after the race and seemed very frustrated with his performance. Hamlin described his day as completely pointless, and that he did nothing more than just ‘run around in circles’ all day long.
Meanwhile Johnson has had more finishes outside the top-20 this year than any year in recent memory, and Jeff Gordon can’t win a race to save his life.
With all of these things plaguing the so called ‘favorites’ for the championship, I believe a new favorite has emerged and he has been right under our nose all along. Kevin Harvick has been great at every kind of racetrack this season, and his improved Richard Childress Racing team looks poised to make the biggest improvement from one season to the other in history.