The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday for the second leg of the 10-race Chase For The Cup. The Sylvania 300 goes at 2 PM ET on ESPN, with the circuit’s consensus favorite, Jimmie Johnson, hoping to break out of his funk.
Johnson is the dynasty of NASCAR, having won the Cup every year from 2006-10, but by those his standards, his two years out of the throne room—including last year when he looked to be on his way to the top before Brad Keselowski slipped in at the wire—seem like a long stretch in the wilderness.
The man who comes into almost every race as a top-heavy betting line favorite hasn’t won since July 6, and his four victories, while not historically low, are not up to his usual standards. What’s most alarming is that Johnson concluded the regular season with four finishes ranging from 28th to 40th.
He sits 11 points behind in the standings, a gap that can be made up in one week, so there’s no reason to hit a panic button with nine races to go. What’s more, Johnson finally broke his run of bad races with a fifth-place showing in Chicago to start the Chase last week. But Matt Kenseth, already atop the standings, got the win and widened his lead a little more.
When you’re the top dog, the standards are higher, and Johnson is struggling to meet expectations that probably aren’t all that realistic, but are ones he no doubt shares himself. We do know this—the bettors believe in him. He’s a solid 9-2 favorite to win in New Hampshire on Sunday.
THE SYLVANIA 300
Johnson last won here in 2010, at a venue that hosts two races per season. The July event resulted in a surprise winner, Brian Vickers. Perhaps another off-the-radar driver will play spoiler as the thirteen contestants for the Cup have all the attention focused on them.
An early lead is going to be important. According to TheSportsNotebook’s resident NASCAR junkie, my brother Bill, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway is difficult to pass on, with its flat track and low banks, meaning picking up speed around a corner isn’t easy.
Even though Kyle Busch doesn’t have a record of winning here, his almost uncanny ability to close races gets him in at 6-1 odds. Then it’s Kenseth—merely the leader of the pack, with six wins, but not a lot of respect, rated behind both JJ and Kyle, at 8-1. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne—the latter who won here in 2012—are available at the same price.
FALLOUT FROM A SCANDAL
Last week we discussed the events that marred the finish of the NASCAR regular season and altered its postseason. The fallout from that continues, as NAPA announced it was dropping Michael Waltrip Racing as a sponsor. Waltrip in turn, said it’s possible Martin Truex could be cut loose. That’s a lot of chaos going on, but Waltrip’s team asked for it with the way they attempted to manipulate the end of the season.