Commentary

Jimmie Johnson has best Chase start

Updated: September 28, 2012, 12:23 PM ET
By Ricky Craven | ESPN

Editor's note: An explanation of Ricky's "Rule of 72" can be found here.

The Rule of 72 helps us understand who has been eliminated from contention for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But it also helps us understand which drivers are in still the hunt and what they must do to win the championship.

After two races, it appears what drivers must do is stay within striking distance of Jimmie Johnson.

With his second-place finish at New Hampshire, Johnson is off to his best-ever start in the Chase. That's remarkable, considering he won five consecutive Sprint Cup championships.

Last week, we said Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin needed to have strong days at New Hampshire. Both drivers made that happen.

To avoid early elimination using the Rule of 72, Gordon needed to average a finish of fourth or better in the eight races between New Hampshire and the Chase finale at Homestead. He exceeded that objective last week with a third-place finish. That improves his chances. And Hamlin's win at New Hampshire with a dominant car was a great recovery from the disappointment of the previous week, when he ran out of fuel late. Winning puts him back into a position of strength.

And even though it wasn't spectacular, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart did what they needed to do, finishing sixth and seventh, respectively. Their finishes at Chicagoland and New Hampshire give them a solid average finish through two races. If they're able to maintain that average, they're in championship contention.

But the attention needs to be given to the driver leading the standings now: Jimmie Johnson. I put him in the same category as Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. When it comes to the playoffs, he can find something a little extra.

From my seat at New Hampshire, Jimmie had a car equal to the drivers who finished third through sixth. He was no match for Hamlin; nor was anyone else. But the fact that Johnson finished second instead of fifth was worth three points to him. He has the confidence that goes with knowing how to manage a race and how to handle the 10 races of the Chase.

We're not ready to eliminate any of the drivers through two races with the Rule of 72, and we're unlikely to eliminate any in the third race of the Chase at Dover. After four races and the unpredictability of Talladega, the picture will become clearer.

But I think it's a must-top-10 week for the drivers from Dale Earnhardt Jr. on back, because of Johnson being at the head of the class. If it were someone else leading the Chase, maybe the urgency wouldn't be as great. But all these competitors have to be concerned about not only how far from the lead they are, but the fact that the leader is Johnson -- and that he's got a history of being able to string together these 10 races.

These drivers understand the formula for success -- and the formula truly is to finish in the top five. And if you're not able to finish in the top five, or if you have finishes outside the top 10 -- which has been the case for Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth -- you'd better offset those finishes with wins.

If there's some inspiration for drivers lower in the Chase standings, it's in their past performances at Dover. Biffle and Kenseth have both been successful at the Monster Mile. Truex has one career win and it's at Dover, so that should encourage him. And Harvick finished second there in the spring race.

But for all of these drivers, if they don't capitalize at Dover or have a bad performance, they could be in big trouble.

[+] EnlargeKasey Kahne
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireKasey Kahne (front) has matched Jimmie Johnson with two top-five finishes in the two Chase races.

When I look at the lineup, with the exception of Johnson, the guys toward the front are at risk this week, historically. Stewart has struggled at Dover. He hasn't had a top-20 finish in the last four races at the Monster Mile. And Hamlin has made it very clear this is a big hurdle -- perhaps his weakest link in this 10-link chain. Both of these drivers are solidly in contention, but this is definitely a hurdle they need to clear.

One driver who deserves a lot of credit and has done a remarkable job is Kasey Kahne. He can certainly afford a 10th-place finish at Dover and he has positioned himself to survive a 15th-place finish.

Kahne has quietly accumulated two top-5s in this Chase -- and that's despite not being happy with his car in either of these races. That suggests to me that he could emerge as this year's surprise. And Johnson is the only other driver with two top-5s, so Kahne is obviously in good company.

Then there's the Monster Mile itself.

New Hampshire and Dover are both one-mile tracks, so one might think drivers could build some momentum from last week. But there's more banking on the straightaways at Dover than there is in the turns at New Hampshire. It's a completely different racetrack. There's no comparison or carryover -- it's a very challenging, very aggressive racetrack.

I think that every one of the competitors in the Chase is concerned about this race and the circumstances because Johnson has gotten off to such a strong start. And Johnson has the strongest numbers at Dover of any Chase driver.

Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in both the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Sprint Cup series. He currently serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.

Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in both the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Sprint Cup series. He currently serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.

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