The second weekend off for the Sprint Cup Series marks the last break they have until the conclusion of the season. Starting at the Brickyard, seven races will decide the Chase, while the final 10 will determine a champion.
But at the same time, it’s not very often that the top contenders have emerged so early that choosing a champion becomes relatively easy. Let’s be honest, all year long there have been two drivers that have stood out among the many drivers that race each week. One is with a familiar team, one that he’s been with since he started out in Cup competition. The other is starting fresh this year, with a new team, new sponsor, number, even manufacturer.
Yet at the same time, it’s clear that whether it’s with familiar surroundings or a new group, the champion will be determined between two guys.
The experienced team, and champion, is the current points leader, Jimmie Johnson.
He started out the year with a bang by winning the Daytona 500, and frankly has not let up one bit. He’s been at the top of the points longer than anyone, and at this point since going to the new points system in 2011, he has the largest gap from first to second than any year before. His 56-point gap over Carl Edwards means he could literally not show up at Indianapolis on Sunday and still leave with the lead. But we know that isn’t going to happen, especially considering he is the defending champion.
His four wins are impressive, but add in eight top-fives and 13 top-10’s, and justifiably he’s the top dog in this title hunt.
The closest contender to him should the Chase start right now is all the way back in sixth, nearly three full races behind in points. But, that doesn’t matter because if the Chase began now, it’s a tie.
Matt Kenseth simply has been on a complete tear since going over to Joe Gibbs Racing. He won at Vegas, then Kansas, tamed Darlington, and then sang bluegrass in Kentucky.
Despite only having four top-fives and 10 top-10’s outside of those wins, it’s been a season already to remember for the 2003 champion. It’s pretty clear now that Jack Roush, his former owner, has to be kicking himself for letting this guy go. He’s the most legit driver in the JGR camp that can win the title. Kyle Busch could still pull it off, and, sadly, Denny Hamlin will be outside looking in due to his time missed, but Kenseth just has it right now.
Other title contenders will show up; it’s still mid-summer and everyone knows that drivers like Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski the last few years have hit their strides when it mattered most. But, at this point, it’s a two-man race.
In order for anyone to take this Chase away, they have to get around the No. 20 and No. 48. Otherwise, these two will go into a duel of their own to determine which will prevail…the man who’s won five Chase titles in the last seven years, or the man that won the final title before the Chase-era began.
Pull those belts as tight as they can go, and strap that helmet down. Only 17 weeks remain until the new champion gets crowned.