AP Photo/Gerry Broome
There's one constant in this smorgasbord of a Cup season: Jimmie Johnson is still the man to beat.
At first glance, the halfway point of the Chase is about as predictable as it gets.
Jimmie Johnson has won three of the first five races and leads the standings by 90 points. Yeah. Who didn't see that coming?
However, the playoff has included some things few people expected. Here's a look at the surprising and the not so surprising occurrences midway through the Chase.
Hendrick cars are 5-0: Yes, I know the Hendrick stable is better than everyone else's, but I still didn't expect those guys to run the table in the first half of the Chase.
Matt Kenseth: He has finished in the top 3 in two Chase races. And that's more impressive than it sounds.
Of the 25 available top-5 spots in the five playoff events, Chase drivers have claimed 21 of them. Kenseth has two of the other four.
Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are the only other non-Chase drivers with a top-5 finish in the past five races.
Kenseth, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and the No. 17 Ford team have figured something out. Kenseth won the first two races this season, which begs this question: What in the world happened in between?
An average finish of 5.9 isn't good enough: Jeff Gordon is the man with that stat for the five Chase races, but he's in third place, 135 points behind Johnson and 45 points behind Mark Martin.
Juan Pablo Montoya: Until his slipup at Charlotte, Montoya was the one non-Hendrick guy that worried the Hendrick boys.
He finished fourth or better in the first four playoff events. Montoya might have done it again Saturday night if not for damaging his car in a restart bumping incident.
The only thing Montoya hasn't done is win a race on an oval track. If he doesn't do it before the end of this season, he will do it next year.
It's Johnson's show: The No. 48 Chevy team, with brilliant Chad Knaus on the pit box, is as good as any in NASCAR history. But it's time to give Johnson his due. The man is an incredibly talented driver.
You could put Johnson is a time machine, transport him back 60 years ago and watch him win on the beach at Daytona against the stars of that era.
Johnson isn't winning because he has a great crew chief and the best equipment. Sure, those things are a factor. But Johnson is contending for an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup title because he's just that good.
He is the best race car driver on the planet.
Double-file restarts have spiced things up: The rule change has brought additional side-by-side racing in the playoff, just as it did earlier this season.
Good or bad, it also adds an element of danger. It made another boring show at Fontana a Talladega-like crashfest down the stretch.
But as far as evening things about and placing different guys in Victory Lane, that hasn't happened. The cream rises to the top regardless of how you stir the pot.
No change for the bottom feeders: David Stremme and Paul Menard are the only drivers to start all 31 Cup races this season without posting a top-10.
Menard, who has the fewest points of the 32 drivers who have started every race, has finished 25th or worse in 21 events. Stremme ranks 30th in the car Ryan Newman guided to 17th in the 2008 standings.
The Chasers just hope they stay out of the way.
Nationwide Series: Busch back in Victory Lane
Four days after being told he had walking pneumonia, Kyle Busch was back doing what he does best -- winning at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
One week ago, it appeared a bad case of the flu for Busch (later diagnosed as pneumonia) was the break Carl Edwards needed to get back in the running for the Nationwide title.
Busch had to get out of the car during the race at Fontana. Teammate Denny Hamlin replaced him, but crashed late in the event and finished 31st.
Edwards finished third, shaving 90 points off Busch's lead to pull within 155 points of Busch heading to Charlotte.
It was false hope. Busch was feeling better Friday night and it showed -- he won the Dollar General 300 for his fifth career victory at Lowe's.
Busch now has seven Nationwide victories this season and leads the standings by 195 points over Edwards, who finished fifth Friday. Four races remain on the 2009 schedule.
Camping World Truck Series: Convoy moves to Martinsville
After almost a month without a race, the Camping World Trucks Series returns to the track this weekend in Martinsville.
Ron Hornaday Jr., who has a 197-point lead over Matt Crafton with five races remaining, hopes to become the first driver to win four series championships.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Racing Resources Says
Sprint Cup Series
- Jimmie Johnson won the NASCAR Banking 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. This marked the sixth victory by Johnson at Lowe's, tying him with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for the most by any driver at that racetrack. Johnson did it in 17 races while Waltrip took 34 and Allison took 36 races.
- This was the 22nd straight Chase race won by a Chase driver.
- This marked Johnson's third win in the first five races in the 2009 Chase. Johnson has won at least one race in every year of the Chase: 2004 (four wins), 2005 (two), 2006 (one), 2007 (four) and 2008 (three). He is the only driver to score three wins in the first five Chase races.
- Johnson scored his 46th career victory in his 286th start. Johnson moved into a tie for 13th with Buck Baker on NASCAR's all-time wins list. It was Johnson's eighth career victory from the pole.
- Johnson holds the points lead by 90 over second-place Mark Martin. This is the largest points lead with five races to go -- the previous was 69 by Johnson in 2008. The largest points lead overcome with five to go was 146 in 2006 by Johnson.
- Johnson scored his sixth victory in 2009, the most by any driver this season. This is the eighth consecutive season that Johnson has won a race (2002-2009).
- Johnson scored his first top-5 finish in his past six races at Lowe's.
- Hendrick Motorsports scored its series-leading 16th victory at Lowe's, the most by any team. Johnson scored the 12th win for Hendrick this season.
- Johnson led five times for a race-high 92 laps, including the final 14. He extended a 16-race streak of leading a lap at Lowe's. With his lead in Saturday's race, Johnson has led in 42 of the 55 Chase races. He has led in 26 of 31 races this season, a series best.
- Johnson's worst finish in the past 31 Chase races (since Lowe's in October 2006) is 15th (Texas and Homestead in 2008).
- Chevrolet has scored 17 wins in 2009, leading all manufacturers. Toyota has nine while Dodge has three and Ford has two.
- Matt Kenseth (second) scored his third top-10 finish in his past four races at Lowe's.
- Kasey Kahne (third) extended a five-race streak of top-10 finishes at Lowe's.
- Jeff Gordon (fourth) scored his fourth top-10 finish in the past five races at Lowe's. He extended a five-race streak of top-15 finishes at the track.
- Rookie Joey Logano (fifth) was the highest-finishing rookie.
- Kyle Busch (eighth) extended a five-race streak of top-10 finishes at Lowe's.
- Martin Truex Jr. (ninth) posted his first top-10 finish in his past 20 races.
- Tony Stewart (13th) has been running at the finish in the past 54 races, the longest current streak.
- Kevin Harvick finished 18th in his 275th consecutive series start at Lowe's. This was Harvick's 317th career start.
- Martin (17th) ended a streak of seven straight top-10 finishes. He extended a six-race streak of lead-lap finishes at Lowe's.
- Bobby Labonte finished 31st in his 575th consecutive start, the second-longest current streak behind Jeff Gordon. This was Labonte's 577th career start.
- Juan Pablo Montoya (35th) posted his fifth finish of 28th or worse in six races at Lowe's. Montoya dropped from third to sixth in points.
- Denny Hamlin (42nd) was the lowest-finishing Chase driver.
- The top 10 consisted of five Chevrolets, two Toyotas, two Dodges and one Ford.
-- Racing Resources
- Kyle Busch won the Dollar General 300 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Busch posted his 28th career victory in his 169th start.
- Busch took sole possession of fourth on NASCAR's Nationwide Series all-time wins list. It was his seventh win in 2009, the most among all drivers.
- Busch won his fifth race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in his 13th start. His five wins there are the most he has at any track. Busch has won three of the past four races at Lowe's.
- Busch won his seventh series race in 2009, ending an 11-race winless streak. His last win came at Gateway in July.
- Race winner Busch led three times for 137 laps, including the final 55. He has led 2,429 laps of the 5,861 laps raced (41 percent) in 2009.
- Joe Gibbs Racing won its 12th race of 2009, the most of all teams. It was JGR's third win at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
- Toyota won its third race at Lowe's Motor Speedway and its 13th in 2009.
- Mike Bliss (second) posted his 12th top-10 finish in 2009. He finished first and second at Lowe's in 2009.
- Dave Blaney (third) posted his first top-10 finish in four races in 2009.
- Busch gained 40 points on second-place Carl Edwards (who finished fifth) and is now 195 points ahead of Edwards.
- Brian Vickers (fourth) posted his fourth straight top-5 finish at Lowe's.
- Edwards (fifth) posted his eighth straight top-10 finish.
- Brad Keselowski (sixth) posted his 13th consecutive top-10 finish.
- Justin Allgaier (12th) was the highest-finishing Rookie of the Year contender.
- The top 10 consisted of five Toyotas, four Chevrolets and one Ford. Justin Allgaier (12th) was the highest-finishing Dodge.