Last August, when Jimmie Johnson came to Watkins Glen International for the annual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, he was trying to gain the series’ point lead. He accomplished the task.
This weekend presents an entirely different story as Johnson arrives for this year’s Cheez-It 355 at The Glen. He already owns the top spot in the standings in what has been a banner year for him.
With Watkins Glen filling the 22nd race of the season on this year’s Cup Series schedule, the race Sunday could prove pivotal as only four races remain after this week to determine the 12 drivers who will compete for the championship over the final 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The Chase will begin with the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 15 and wrap up at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 17.
Here is a capsule look at the top 12 in points heading to the Glen.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Last season, Johnson, a five-time series champion, came to The Glen fourth in the points parade trailing leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. as well as Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Johnson recorded a third-place finish in the race at The Glen, and that coupled with finishes of 28th, 8th and 6th by Earnhardt, Kenseth and Biffle respectively saw Johnson leap to the points lead by a single point over Biffle.
Johnson (772 points) leads this season’s standings by a whopping 77 points over Clint Bowyer. In theory, Johnson could be a no-show at the Glen and still would not lose the points lead. He will obviously be at the Glen this weekend seeking his fifth victory of the season. Johnson easily could have won at least three more races this season, including the last two at Indianapolis and Pocono.
Johnson has a series-high 14 top 10 finishes this season and has not recorded any DNF (did not finish) results. He’s held the points lead since the sixth race of this season.
2. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer (695 points) has proven to be quite the driver to be reckoned with after leaving the Richard Childress Racing camp two years ago to join the Michael Waltrip Racing organization. Quietly, he is poised to make the Chase for the fifth time in his career. Last season he finished second to Brad Keselowski in final Cup series points by 39 markers and has proven that result was no fluke. Though winless in 2013, Bowyer has amassed seven top-five and 11 top-ten finishes. He arrived at the Glen 10th in points a year ago; he finished fourth.
3. Carl Edwards
After nearly winning the Cup championship in 2011, Edwards (688 points) had a very disappointing season last year as he missed the Chase for the first time since 2007. Edwards arrived at The Glen in 2012 mired in the 12th spot in points and winless on the season. He eventually landed in the 15th spot in final points. He placed 14th at The Glen a year ago.
This year’s campaign has gone much better, beginning with a win at Phoenix in March. Edwards comes to the Glen already with 10 top-10 finishes; he had 13 all of last year.
4. Kevin Harvick
Many wondered how Harvick (675 points) would fare this year after announcing that he is leaving RCR at the end of this season to join the Stewart-Haas Racing camp. So far, so good for Harvick in 2013. He has posted a pair of wins and a solid 11 top-10 results. Harvick was winless last season as he arrived in the Finger Lakes region and was ninth in points before posting a 15th place finish at Watkins Glen.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Nation was all abuzz early last August as the fan favorite held the points as he arrived at the Glen. After winning in 2012 in Michigan, Earnhardt (656 points) is winless to date in 2013 but has been consistent, posting 12 top-10 results. Hampering his points picture this season has been a pair of DNFs. Earnhardt has done fairly well in the last two races, posting a sixth at Indianapolis and a fifth at Pocono.
6. Kyle Busch
Many fans feel that Busch (646 points) is a Cup championship waiting to happen, but thus far in his career, despite many wins, the championship has proved elusive. Last year at the Glen, Busch was involved in perhaps the most exciting finish the entire Cup season when he held the lead going into the final lap and lost to winner Marcos Ambrose during the final circuit. Busch has two wins, nine top fives and 13 top 10s in 2013.
7. Matt Kenseth
As usual, this steady competitor is enjoying a fairly solid season. On the plus side he has matched Johnson’s series’ high win total in 2013 with four victories and has a strong 11 top-ten finishes.
On the flip side, Kenseth (638 points) has also suffered three DNFs. He dropped one position in the point standings last Sunday after a relatively poor 22nd-place run at Pocono. Since the Chase format began in 2004, Kenseth has missed just once, that in 2009.
8. Kasey Kahne
Kahne (612 points) helped his cause immensely this last Sunday when he won at Pocono, jumping up one spot in the standings and earning a second victory that could prove crucial. He has nine top-10 runs this year, but, like Kenseth, failed to finish three races. Kahne is in a far better position then he was last August when he arrived at The Glen 11th in points and left The Glen in the same position. Kahne has made The Chase only three times: 2006, 2009 and 2012.
9. Jeff Gordon
Gordon (602 points) almost won last Sunday at Pocono but was passed for the win in the waning laps by Kahne. Gordon has failed to win this season and although he has amassed nine top 10s he also has suffered five DNFs, the most of any driver currently in a Chase position. Gordon is in a much better position then he was when he arrived at The Glen last year 13th in points.
10. Greg Biffle
Although he has a victory this season, Biffle (599 points) has been a disappointment, scoring just three top-five finishes the fewest of anyone currently in a Chase position.
The top 10 in markers after the 26th race, Sept. 7 at Richmond, automatically advance to the final 10-race Chase.
The last two spots are referred to as “wild cards” and are reserved for those two drivers with the most victories ranked 11th through 20th in the point standings. In the event of a tie in number of victories, points will be used as the tiebreaker.
11. Tony Stewart. In a dramatic turn of events, Stewart (594 points) will not be at Watkins Glen this year due to the broken leg he suffered in a sprint-car crash earlier this week. He will be replaced in his No. 14 entry by Max Papis. After a slow start, Stewart but has been able to muster a victory and eight top 10s this season.
12. Brad Keselowski. NASCAR’s defending Cup Series champion finds himself in a dangerous points position this season as he holds down the final Chase spot. Keselowski (592 points) has not won in 2013 but had a strong run last year at The Glen with a second-place finish.