Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: It'll be a Sprint to the finish
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson during practice for the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)
LOUDON -- Tony Stewart, NASCAR's Sprint Cup champion in 2011, offered up a bit of calendar advice on Friday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
His basic message: It ain't over when it's only half over.
"I wouldn't be putting anybody's name on the trophy yet," Stewart said. "It's way, way, way too early for that."
He's right, of course.
The 2103 Sprint Cup race just looks a little like it's over with Jimmie Johnson putting a licking on the rest of the field and doing a decent job of dominating the first half of the season.
To be sure, Johnson has his work cut out for him in this afternoon's Camping World RV Sales 301 at NHMS. He's starting 43rd in the race after his qualifying time was thrown out.
Johnson's car was the second fastest to pole sitter Brad Keselowski in qualifying on Friday afternoon, but his time was disallowed when the front end of the Lowe's Chevrolet measured too low during post-qualifying inspection.
But the car still has plenty of speed and chances are Johnson, as long as he can avoid trouble around him, will roar through the pack and be a factor before the day is done.
He almost always is.
Johnson won his record fifth straight Cup championship in 2010 and has gone two years watching first Stewart and then Keselowski last year, win titles. He's itching to get back on top and win a sixth crown overall.
He and Matt Kenseth have each won four of the 18 races this year and last week Johnson completed his season sweep of the events at Daytona with a win in the Coke Zero 400.
Johnson's lead - he's up 49 points on Clint Bowyer - is such that he could wake up this morning and decide to take Sunday afternoon off from work and spend it cruising Lake Winnipesaukee in a speedboat and still leave town with the points lead tonight.
But, as Stewart points out, there's a long, long way to go in a total season that hit the halfway mark last week.
There's much less time to go before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins and that creates the race within the race today.
A few of the pile of drivers trying to squeeze their way into the 12-car Chase field said it's not panic time as far as getting into the championship race.
There are, though, limited slots and lots of contenders.
"It's tighter than it's ever been," said Jamie McMurray. "If you can finish in the top 10 in the races leading up to the Chase, you're pretty much guaranteed to be in."
Coming up with the consistency to reel off those top 10s is the problem.
McMurray sits in 17th place today and is one of five drivers within 15 points of Kasey Kahne, who holds down the 12th spot going into the race.
Keselowski is in 13th, two points behind Kahne, and Jeff Gordon is just one point behind him. Joey Logano is in 15th, four points behind Gordon. Ryan Newman is one point behind Logano.
Keselowski and his Penske Racing teammate Logano said it's more urgency than panic at the moment.
"I think there's a big difference between the two," Keselowski said. "If we do our part, we don't need any help. We don't even need any luck. ... We're eager to get going. We feel like we can do it, but I don't feel a sense of panic. There are still two months of racing to get in the Chase."
The Cup series is off next weekend and then there are seven races in seven weeks at Indianapolis, Pocono Raceway, Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Tenn., Atlanta and Richmond International Raceway in Virginia before the Chase field is set late on Saturday, Sept. 7.
"We've got fast race cars," said Keselowski, who has been fast in recent weeks but has struggling to get results and hopes to jumpstart a stretch run from the pole today. "If we can get over this little hump that we're fighting through right now, there's no reason to think both cars can't make the Chase."
He had a string of six straight finishes of 11th or better snapped last week at Daytona after his right front tire blew. He crashed and ended up finishing 40th in the race.
"The big thing is, we can't let that kill the momentum of what we had going on," Logano said. "I don't feel like we're in panic mode now. No, we've got to make this Chase. ... We're not in panic mode yet."Stress the yet.
firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @allenlessels