Jimmie Johnson should have been good. Although his spot in the quarterfinal bracket of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup wasn't fully secure, he was 27 points ahead of the cutoff coming into last year's Round 1 elimination race at Dover International Speedway.
Only a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances would prevent him from continuing his quest for a record-tying seventh championship. Adding to Johnson's level of security, Dover was his best track, a place where he had more wins and led more laps than any other driver in the history of the one-mile oval.
But as proven many times in the knockout Chase format where four drivers are dropped every three races, no driver's playoff fate is secure unless they win. And though Johnson had a comfortable points cushion, he did not have a postseason victory to his name at this time a year ago.
An all important factor that became more so when a rear axle seal broke on Johnson's No. 48 car sending him to the garage prematurely -- a part estimated around $5. He would go on to finish 41st, a result that prevented him from transferring to the second round.
"I think last year shows that you really can't count on a race track always being kind to a driver or always working in their favor," Johnson said Friday. "It's part of racing ... kind of showed everybody, once again, that you just can't take a race or a track for granted for anybody."
Fast-forward 12 months, Johnson is the poster child of how quickly a driver's Chase fortunes can rapidly swing from one extreme to another -- a lesson many are mindful of entering Sunday's Citizen Soldier 400 (NBCSN, 2 p.m. ET), the first elimination race of this year's playoffs.
"There's a lot of potential in the Chase to have one bad race," Martin Truex Jr. said. "You know, no matter how good you ran or no matter how good of a season you've had we've seen in the past that something out of your control can take you out of the opportunity to win a championship."
Among those well aware of what trouble befell Johnson last year is Brad Keselowski, who despite holding a 35-point lead over 13th-ranked Jamie McMurray refuses to assume he'll advance. Naturally Keselowski would like to add to his season win total, however his first priority is to make sure he qualifies for the next round, which he can do with a finish of 29th or better.
Having an eye on the big picture is why Keselowski says he'll avoid taking chances on the track, and his Team Penske crew won't gamble on strategy and certainly won't push it going through technical inspection. Simply, the risk doesn't outweigh the reward.
Helping Keselowski's cause, he will start on the pole after rain canceled qualifying, with NASCAR determining the starting lineup via owner points. He will share the front row with Truex.
"These are the perks you get when you're in that position," Keselowski said. "We'll take it. Of course, being up front gives us a very advantageous pit road selection for this race, which I think is very critical."
Of the 16 Chase drivers, only Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick are guaranteed to be among the 12 still championship eligible when the second round begins Oct. 8 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Truex and Harvick solidified their spots by virtue of winning the first two Round 1 events, and as such both can race with no concern about where they finish.
In a playoff that inherently creates a high degree of stress and volatility, an elimination race without any worry and being at the mercy of a $5 part breaking is something Truex welcomes.
"Things are going well and I think for us it's just important to keep that mindset, not get too many highs or lows and just keep that even keel and be smart and race hard," Truex said. "So, for us, it's just one more weekend where we don't have to worry about that stuff happening."
CITIZEN SOLDIER 400 LINEUP
|2||Martin Truex, Jr.||Toyota|
|22||Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.||Ford|