NASCAR story lines focus on Jimmie Johnson, race for Chase

DAYTONA BEACH

Last week's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway marked the halfway point in the NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

With 18 races finished, here are the five biggest story lines to follow with eight races to go before the 10-event Chase:

1. Can anyone stop Jimmie Johnson?

His dominance at Daytona is hard to overstate. Last week, in becoming the first driver to sweep both Cup races there in three decades, he led 94 laps — the most by any winner at a restrictor-plate track since 2005. Johnson not only leads in points (49 ahead of Clint Bowyer) and top-10 finishes (12), but he's also tied with Matt Kenseth with four victories. His No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy is the clear favorite to end his two-year championship drought. "I think that what we've done over the course of the year … probably sends the biggest message that we're buttoned up and ready and in a position to win a sixth championship," Johnson said after last week's victory. "But there's a lot that can take place between now and Homestead."

2. Who will emerge as Johnson's biggest competition?

Bowyer has quietly turned his No. 15 Toyota into one of the top cars in the sport. He finished runnerup in points last year and sits second again after a fourth-place run last week. He needs some wins and bonus points to close the gap with Johnson. Kenseth's four checkered flags make him a contender, and Kevin Harvick is getting hot with eight consecutive top 10s. Don't count out Kyle Busch, who has driven his No. 18 Toyota to two victories and led 984 laps — second only to Johnson (1,020).

3. Will this be the best race to the Chase ever?

Only 44 points separate ninth place from 21st, giving 13 drivers legitimate chances for the final four spots (two guaranteed, two wild cards) in NASCAR's postseason. Those competitors include up-and-comers such as Joey Logano and Tampa's Aric Almirola mixed with former champions Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. With the money, pride and job prospects at stake, expect high-risk, high-reward driving and a mad dash to the finish.

4. What big names will miss the postseason?

Defending series champion Brad Keselowski is in serious jeopardy. His No. 2 Penske Racing Ford has zero wins and is averaging a ho-hum 16th-place finish, though he has finished in the top two at five of the eight tracks left until the Chase begins. Four-time series champ Jeff Gordon is 14th in points, 12 behind Stewart for the final guaranteed spot. Gordon's No. 24 Chevy is winless with more DNFs (five) than top-five finishes (four). He has only missed the Chase once in its previous nine years but might get shut out this year.

5. Can Danica or Dale Jr. earn a win?

Aside from earning the pole and finishing eighth at the Daytona 500, Danica Patrick has had an uneventful first full Cup season. She's 123 points behind her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse, as the series' top rookie, and her best remaining hope for win likely will come in the final plate race, in October at Talladega. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is fifth in the points but still has just one win since the start of 2009. The good news for NASCAR's most popular driver: He's having his best season since 2006, and 17 of his 19 career wins have come at tracks still left on the circuit, including Michigan, the site of his past two victories.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

NASCAR story lines focus on Jimmie Johnson, race for Chase 07/12/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 11:19pm]

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