By Jerry Bonkowski – For TheRacingGuy.com
There is one word that is of utmost importance, not just for the four remaining races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but particularly for this Sunday’s race at Martinsville Raceway.
That word is: patience. And it is important not just for the rest of the field – both those in the Chase and those that failed to make it – but especially so for the top three drivers in the standings heading into this weekend’s race, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.
Keselowski leads Johnson by seven points and Hamlin by 20 points. That’s the good news for the driver of the No. 2 Dodge.
The bad news is between the two of them, Johnson and Hamlin have 10 total wins at the half-mile bull ring in southern Virginia. Keselowski has just five career starts with his best showings being a pair of top-10 finishes.
Perhaps more so than any of the other races remaining on the schedule, Martinsville is the most crucial race for Keselowski if he hopes to win his first career Sprint Cup championship. Because of Hamlin’s and Johnson’s outstanding records there – Johnson’s average finish at Martinsville is an outstanding 5.6, while Hamlin’s average finish is almost as good at 6.4.
Keselowski’s average finish at Martinsville: 10.2. That’s obviously not bad in five races, but Johnson’s average finish is over 21 career starts there, while Hamlin’s is over 14 starts at his home state track.
Thus far through the first six Chase races, Keselowski has handled the inherent pressure that has mounted with each passing race with aplomb and little hesitancy.
But when we start going back to tracks where he has not had the greatest performance in past races, it’s human nature to wonder if a chink in Keselowski’s armor will develop. All it takes is one mistake, one poor pit stop, one blown tire at the most inopportune time, and Keselowski’s reign atop the Sprint Cup standings over the last four weeks could quickly become history.
And if there’s one thing he does not want to do is give up the lead to Johnson, in particular. As we saw during Johnson’s record run of five consecutive championships from 2006 through 2010, the second half of the Chase invariably was when he shined the most and performed the best.
While Johnson is unquestionably within striking distance of Keselowski, being just seven points back, the one thing Keselowski cannot afford to do is let Johnson get past him in the points and assume the lead at any point in the four remaining races.
For as hard as it is to keep Johnson at bay in the standings, it’s much harder to play catch up to him than leading him. A perfect example of that strategy was seen last Sunday at Kansas. While Johnson led 44 laps and looked like he could potentially win, his car eventually faded to a ninth-place finish.
But to his credit, Keselowski had a marginal car, yet took it to an eighth-place finish, one spot ahead of Johnson – not to mention maintaining his hold on the standings.
And you can’t discount Hamlin. Even though 20 points is the difference between a win and 20th position, per se, you can bet he’ll be thinking just one thing at Martinsville: to earn his fifth career win there.
Besides needing increased patience in light of the resulting increased pressure with each passing race, the top three points leaders need to drive with their brains and not their feet. If they try to do something they don’t usually do, or take chances they normally wouldn’t take, it could come back to haunt them the rest of the Chase.
Most importantly, and I go back to patience one more time, is for the three leaders to not overdrive their cars and if they realize they don’t have a winning car on any particular race day, the mot important thing is to get as strong a finish as they and their car can handle.
Remember how last season’s Chase championship came down to one point? You can’t get any closer than that. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards tied for the title based upon points after the season finale at Homestead, but Stewart ultimately was awarded the championship by one point, that being the tiebreaker based upon the difference in number of wins between both drivers (Stewart had five, Edwards had one).
Ever since the Chase began, I’ve been saying that Keselowski could potentially be the dark horse of dark horses, and thus far, he’s lived up to that.
As for Johnson, you know he can never be discounted or overlooked, especially with the incredibly consistent season he’s had thus far in 2012. He’s as hungry as ever for championship No. 6 as he was for the first five titles he won.
And Hamlin, it may be coincidence – or potentially fate – but he celebrates his birthday on the final day of the season, Nov. 18, at Homestead. If the incentive of winning your first career Cup championship on your birthday – and having the crew chief who led last year’s champ to the title in Darian Grubb – isn’t enough, I don’t know what is.
So don’t be surprised if the top three leaders right now play defense in the remaining four races and exercise patience more than aggressiveness. On the flip side, the other drivers that are still mathematically within the Chase will be doing the exact opposite, touting aggressiveness over patience and prudence.
The most important thing is that Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin stay out of the way of the other Chase contenders who will be giving it all they got in these last four races, even if the attempt ultimately proves futile, lest the top three make even one mistake that costs them the championship.
Trust me, by the time we crown this season’s champ at Homestead, it will be the driver who has not only shown consistency, but more importantly, incredible patience in the light of almost overwhelming pressure.
Wins help, but it’s how you combat pressure with patience that becomes the distinction and difference between a champion and a runnerup.