NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Johnson Looks To Close Out A Title On Sunday

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is at the end of the line as the circuit comes to the Homestead-Miami Speedway for Sunday’s Ford Ecoboost 400 (3 PM ET, ESPN). It’s the final race of the season and it’s going to take a seismic chain of events to keep Jimmie Johnson from winning his sixth championship.

Johnson has opened his lead over Matt Kenseth to a commanding 28 points, as Kenseth has faded over the last couple weeks. Kevin Harvick still has a mathematical chance at 34 points out, but everything is predicated on a bad run by Johnson on Sunday.

With Johnson going for title #6, my first instinct is to compare him to Michael Jordan, who won six rings with the Chicago Bulls. Given that, maybe it’s ironic that MJ’s number 23 is also the magic number for Johnson on Sunday. If he finished 23rd or higher it doesn’t matter what Kenseth does, the championship race is over.

What then are the odds of Johnson having such a poor finish? I went back through all his results since the beginning of the 2008 season, a period that covers 215 races. Johnson finished lower than 23rd forty times in that timeframe. That represents an 18.6% chance that the door opens for Kenseth.

It’s not odds that leave you optimistic if you’re a Kenseth backer (as I am). But it’s not unthinkable either. Johnson’s poor finishes include four straight races this season from August 18-September 7, and it also includes his last two trips to Miami.

Kenseth got the weekend off to a good start when he won the pole position. It’s certainly not something that has a strong correlation to winning, but this is also a race that will be run under a different dynamic than any other in the season. Kenseth himself acknowledged that he pushed hard for the pole so he’d be in position to capitalize if Johnson had any early problems.

The betting odds for Sunday reflect that changed dynamic. Johnson, who normally is at or close to the favorite’s role–usually in the 4-1 to 6-1 range–has dropped all the way to 15-1. Clearly, the smart money is thinking that JJ will drive cautiously, more focused on avoiding a wreck rather than rolling the dice to win. In that same vein, Kenseth is a 7-2 favorite.