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NASCAR mailbag: Is Jimmie Johnson really a lock to make the Chase championship round?

Readers wonder if Jimmie Johnson is really primed for a championship run, and the impact of Ryan Newman re-signing with Richard Childress Racing.

Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Each Wednesday SB Nation's NASCAR reporter Jordan Bianchi answers your questions about the latest news and happenings within the sport. If you have a mailbag question email

You really think Jimmie Johnson's a lock to make the Final 4? Isn't that a big jump considering he just won his first race since March and how much Hendrick Motorsports has struggled. With how good the Toyotas have been, along with [Kevin] Harvick, I don't think it's going to be all that easy for Johnson to get that far.


In the playoffs, where a $5 part breaking or a fluky circumstance can result in an elimination, no driver should ever be considered a "lock" to advance to the next round. That applies to Johnson, Harvick, or even the defending Sprint Cup champion, Kyle Busch, who a year ago made it out of the first round by a mere two points.

But provided Johnson can avoid a cataclysmic finish placing him in a must-win situation to transfer, it's hard to think he's not in a good position to make it to the championship finale with a chance at a record-tying seventh series crown. The three semifinal round races at Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, and Phoenix International Raceway are among Johnson's very best tracks. That makes it a safe bet he will not just be in contention for a top-five finish, but rather a victory at one or more venues if all goes right.

Adding further credence is just how much speed the Hendrick cars have shown since the Chase began. This is no longer an organization slumping badly (based off its high standards), as it was through the summer.

Were it not for penalties on pit road, Johnson could've taken the win at Chicagoland Speedway (where he led a race-high 118 laps) and Dover International Speedway (where race winner Truex admitted he didn't think he had the car to pass the No. 48). Meanwhile, Chase Elliott finished third in both those races and led 103 laps last Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Even Kasey Kahne, who didn't qualify for the Chase, has been on a nice run recently with five top-10 finishes in the past six races.

Adding everything together -- excellent driver, superb crew chief, fast cars, favorable schedule -- and all of a sudden it's easy to see why it's not presumptuous to think Johnson is racing for a championship Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

A lot can happen, but if you had to pick right now which four drivers do you have the most confidence in making it to [the championship round]? I agree with you Johnson looks like a good bet, but the other three spots seem fairly wide open.


The good and bad about the Chase is the unpredictability and how acts of randomness can greatly impact the championship. That makes forecasting who will do what a challenge, even when it's seemingly apparent what's to come (ahem, Johnson advancing past Round 3).

But assuming the six-time champ gets through as expected, those most likely to join in him in the title round would be, in order: Truex, Harvick, and Kyle Busch. Now these are admittedly obvious selections, and in the short history of the knockout Chase format there has always been a surprise finalist, which you should take into account and maybe consider a longshot.

Regardless, Truex's prowess on the mile-and-a-half tracks -- especially with Kansas Speedway and Texas upcoming -- and Harvick's moxie in repeatedly staving off elimination cannot be ignored. It also helps that both have consistently had speed throughout the year, and are capable of winning any given week.

As for Busch, this spot could just as easily go to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, who has finishes of second (twice), a fifth, and a ninth thus far in the Chase. But Busch gets the nod because his average finish (4.75) is virtually the same as Kenseth's (4.5) along with the fact that he's the reigning champ until someone unseats him.

With that said, look for Johnson, Truex, Harvick, and Busch to be eliminated well before Homestead.

Curious what happens with Ty Dillon now that Ryan Newman is staying with Richard Childress Racing? I thought Newman was going to get bumped for Dillon, but now that's off the table. Is Dillon going to stay in the Xfinity Series next year, or is Richard Childress going to add a fourth car?


Speculation had been rampant regarding Dillon taking Newman's spot, a scenario that won't come to fruition with Newman signing a "multi-year" extension this week to continue driving RCR's No. 31 car.

This, however, doesn't mean Dillon will remain in Xfinity full-time for another season, nor will RCR expand to accommodate the elevation of Richard Childress' grandson. As has been hinted by both Childress and Dillon publicly on a few occasions, Dillon is still moving to Cup next year and a deal is forthcoming.

What's important to remember is RCR supplies engines and technical data to a handful of single-car organizations, and an arrangement where Dillon is farmed out to one of these teams makes the most sense for all involved. Dillon gets promoted, while the team gets a talented young driver, along with a tighter alliance with RCR.