JOHNSON’S DOVER WIN DOESN’T END CHASE

The sense of panic is already apparent. “They may as well just start engraving Jimmie Johnson’s trophy now,” some may say. The fear is understandable. By winning at Dover, Jimmie Johnson seems to be playing out a re-run NASCAR fans know only too well.

“Back away from the panic button,” I say. Keep your hands away from the sharp objects. Before we write this season off as another episode of the “Jimmie Johnson Victory Tour brought to you by Lowe’s,” let us not lose sight of what else happened Sunday.

Denny Hamlin kept his points lead. Perhaps more importantly for him, the race didn’t become another “Dover Disaster” for the “11” team. While his ninth place run wasn’t as good as his finish of fourth earlier this season, by virtue of his solid finish, Hamlin carries something of a moral victory out of Dover.

The other contenders also averted disaster. Let me re-phrase that. The other real contenders acquitted themselves nicely. Carl Edwards gained on the front of the pack with a top five. Kyle Busch held his ground with a top ten. Dark horse candidates Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton also accounted well for themselves. Kevin Harvick was the only serious contender for the championship who took a hit (he lost three places in the points), but when you can say that about a 15th place finish, it tells you the competition is tight among several contenders, and you can turn that around quickly.

It may be only too easy to panic based on what happened with Clint Bowyer’s situation, or what happened to Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle or Matt Kenseth. Let’s be honest — before New Hampshire, who really thought Clint Bowyer would be a real title threat to Jimmie Johnson?

As for Smoke, he’s not mathematically out by any means; however, he would have to sustain a level of consistency he hasn’t thus far demonstrated in 2010 to make it. In the case of Roush boys Kenseth and Biffle, they’ve been respectable, but I don’t think anyone — save for their most loyal fans — ever really gave them a chance. Any late surge by Jeff Gordon could, for the sake of parity, register as a pleasant surprise, but it doesn’t appear that’s going to happen.

What the 2010 Chase has demonstrated so far is that the guys who made it belong there. The NASCAR points system has been all about consistency long before there was a Chase. Other drivers show flashes of brilliance, but it’s this top 12 that has stood the test of time over 28 races.

Given that, it’s reasonable to assume six, perhaps even seven or eight drivers are in the mix for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. It is possible Kansas could become “Separation Sunday,” and all your fears are well-founded if you’re ready for a champion not named Jimmie Johnson. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet, and what’s more, there’s a bigger field than there’s ever been who may have something to say about it.

The surest sign this Chase isn’t over yet may come from none other than Jimmie Johnson himself. Last week, there were those ready to write him off, based on his 25th place performance at New Hampshire. Now he’s running second, just 35 points out of the lead.

If you go away, you may miss something. A lot can happen in just one race.