LONG POND — Come late this afternoon Tony Stewart could be directing your attention to Interstate 80 near Pocono Raceway.
Stewart said after last Sunday’s race in Indianapolis — an event panned by fans and media as dreadfully boring — that “if you want to see passing, we can go out on (Interstate) 465 and pass all you want.”
If Jimmie Johnson does today what he did at Pocono in June, the best competition might be for the I-80 on-ramp after the race.
Johnson stomped the field from the pole position in June and will start at the front once again in the NASCAR Sprint Cup GoBowling.com 400. His pole speed Friday of 180.654 mph pulverized the track record. His season thus far — including four victories that ties him with Matt Kenseth for the most — has given him a 75-point lead in the drivers standings.
“It’s nice to have the points lead,” said Johnson, who drives the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. “I think it sends a message to the garage area that we are good on all types of tracks, all types of situations. But through it all even though I have a huge points lead right now I still have my eyes on three or four cars that I think will be the guys to deal with in the Chase.”
No driver has clinched a spot in the Chase, where the Cup champion will be determined over the final 10 races. But for Johnson — and about a half dozen others for that matter — that fact needs to accompanied by a wink. It would take a collapse that would rival the worst in the history of sports for Johnson to be knocked out. And even that probably wouldn’t bump him.
Don’t expect the freefall to begin today. Johnson has won three times at Pocono and dominated on each occasion.
Johnson led 128 of 160 laps in June, surrendering the lead only during pit stops. Once the field cycled through green-flag servicing, he was back out front again. By the midway point, it was obvious the only way Johnson was going to lose was if he made a mistake or the car had mechanical issues.
“Pocono to me has always been a track I felt a sweep is possible and easier to have a sweep here than at other tracks just due to the calendar,” said Johnson, who won both Pocono races in 2004. “There’s not a lot of time between the first race and the second race. Things don’t change a ton.”
Kyle Busch will start alongside Johnson on the front row. Busch has never won here, but behind those two are four previous Pocono winners — Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman in Row 2, and Kurt Busch and Joey Logano in Row 3.
Newman arguably presents the biggest challenge to Johnson among that bunch of former Pocono winners. He was Johnson’s main adversary for much of the June race before finishing fifth, behind Greg Biffle (second), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (third) and Stewart (fourth). He led 19 laps, second most.
Although Newman’s season has been a mixed bag, he enters off a victory at Indianapolis where he led 45 of 160 laps. He took the lead from Johnson after Johnson’s had a slow pit stop late in the race. Johnson paced the field by leading a race-high 73 laps to that point.
“There are no guarantees,” Newman said, “but it’s the same race car and I feel like we have been able to sharpen up some things that we did in the June race here.”