We are five races into the ten race NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup and the three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson holds a 90 point lead (the largest margin for any driver at this stage in the Chase).
And, by process of elimination, there are five races left, starting and tiny Virginia “Paperclip” at Martinsville, before sliding to the complete end of the spectrum at the giant Talladega Superspeedway, then criss-crossing America for the final three round at Texas, Phoenix and the finale at Homestead.
Looking at form and the raft of data supplied by NASCAR, here's a small preview of what to expect. It doesn't make pretty reading if you're not a Jimmie Johnson fan, and even less so if you're not a Hendrick Motorsports fan.
Martinsville – You thought Lowe's was Jimmie Johnson's best track? OK, so maybe Fontana, or Dover? You better add Martinsville to that list. Johnson has six wins at the short track, four of which have come since the series made the switch to the COT design. He has led over a quarter of the laps at the track since 2005, only spent the equivalent of one race outside the top-15 and has an average finish of 2.6. Need I go on? OK then, let's move onto who else to watch for. That would be Jimmie's teammate and car owner, Jeff Gordon. He has the best average start of anyone, and has an average finish of just 0.1 worse than Johnson. Hendrick haters, your best chance of someone else taking the chequered flag are Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, though I wouldn't hold Tony up as a non-Hendrick car anytime soon.
Talladega – You simply cannot predict Talladega. You wouldn't have said Brad Keselowski would win earlier this year. You wouldn't have suspected Regan Smith and Paul Menard would be close enough to the front twelve months ago that only a line or two on the track stopped Smith from winning. NASCAR's restrictor plate racing is infamous for breeding big crashes. They can happen anywhere, to anyone. Jeff Gordon was the catalyst for the first crash at this year's other 'Dega race. You can, of course hide at the back for most of the race, but that's no failsafe. You can lose the draft and fall down a lap or you can still get caught in a crash. And that's before you throw into the mix the nature of NASCAR's qualifying system, which could put the “go-or-go-home” cars, normally at the back of the starting field, at the front as the use a specialist qualifying set-up to guarantee themselves a spot in the field. And that's before you start wondering what the new smaller restrictor plate will do. Just watch in awe.
Texas – A return to normality is a return to NASCAR's staple intermediate tracks and a return to Texas. Jeff Gordon won the race earlier in the year, but that was his first win at the 1.5mile Fort Worth facility. And, for those of your spotting a pattern, an intermediate track puts Roush drivers to the fore, with Kenseth, Biffle and Edwards inside the top-five of all drivers in NASCAR's statistics. However, while the Ford team is showing the start of a recovery with the new generation COT raced by Kenseth in recent weeks has brought improved results. But while a Roush victory is possible, it may not be probable, and who else is in that before mentioned top-five but Jimmie Johnson, where he's joined by Tony Stewart. The Gibbs duo of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch may also challenge.
Phoenix – It's the strange round oval that drives like a road course (apparently). With that in mind you might think that Juan Pablo Montoya or Marcos Ambrose to finish well (and Montoya may well in a year he has come of NASCAR age) but the fact is it just isn't enough like a road course to make any difference. And on a Chase track right now, that means Jimmie Johnson is atop the stat pile looking down, and from quite a height as well. His average finish is five places higher than anyone else's – 4.7 to Mark Martin and Jeff Burton's 9.9 – and he dominates most of the numbers. Mark Martin won the spring Phoenix race, and could again; setting up an interesting finish is Johnson hasn't ridden off into the sunset by then.
Homestead – The last race of the 36 race season and the 10 race chase is at Homestead, the 1.5mile oval in Florida. However, it isn't designed like the other 1.5mile tracks on the calendar and this is the driver's one and only visit there every year. And once more it's a question of who can take over from Roush, with defending winner Carl Edwards, along with teammates Kenseth and Biffle is once more firmly in the top five drivers at the track. This is one where Jimmie Johnson hasn't dominated (probably because for three of the four races the statistics are based on he hasn't needed to dominate), only leading nine laps at the track. That could leave the door open to Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon or even Martin Truex Jr, who has an average finish of 7 in his three previous visits.