When I saw Jeb Burton win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Friday night, Chase Elliott win the ARCA race in Pocono on Saturday and Trevor Bayne outduel Austin Dillon for the checkered flag in the Nationwide Series race in Iowa on Sunday, I felt like I was catching a glimpse of NASCAR’s future.
And when I witnessed Jimmie Johnson taking the other 42 cars in the Sprint Cup field out behind the woodshed in Pocono on Sunday afternoon, it seemed to me that I was watching a driver closing in on his sixth Cup championship.
Normally it really grinds my gears when pundits and fans try to make too much of one race, but the events that unfolded on tracks across three different states this past weekend had a feeling of inevitability attached to them that was hard to ignore.
Let’s start with Johnson. There is no better gauge of horsepower than Pocono, a track featuring a pair of long straightaways that allow engine builders to flex their respective muscles. By the end of the day, Rick Hendrick’s engines proved to be a cut above the competition, powering four cars into the top five.
So far this year, Joe Gibbs Racing has been the only team fast enough to consistently challenge Hendrick in the horsepower department. But after three engine failures in the past two races, the folks at Toyota Racing Development made the decision last week to sacrifice a little horsepower in search of reliability. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin both managed to finish in the top 10 on Sunday, but neither had enough ponies under the hood to seriously challenge Johnson, who led 128 out of 160 laps.
While the JGR crew desperately chases more reliable engines, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are now free to fine-tune their cars with an eye squarely on the final 10 races of the season. When Hendrick’s dynamic duo is able to shift its focus to the Chase this early, it’s usually bad news for the rest of the field. My guess is that we’ll all be hearing Darrell Waltrip calling Jimmie Johnson “Old Six-Time” next year at Daytona.
If you’re cursing Johnson under your breath as you read this, save it for the people who are really to blame — your favorite driver, for example. Johnson’s doing his job, and it’s up to the rest of the field to catch him.
Maybe the driver destined to knock Johnson off his perch is named Bayne, Dillon, Elliott or Burton. All four looked like future stars this past weekend.
After being thrust into the spotlight far too soon following an improbable Daytona 500 win, Bayne is finally realizing some of his potential. The Knoxville native is getting the chance to compete in quality equipment each week in the Nationwide Series, and he is starting to gain more confidence and perform more consistently.
Dillon, Elliott and Burton are a little more difficult to assess at this point. Elliott is just 17 years old, but he’s already slick as glass behind the wheel and in front of a microphone, a major selling point for potential sponsors. Dillon is well on his way to building a good enough Nationwide résumé to justify a spot on his grandfather’s Cup team and Burton upped his stock by putting a fast truck in Victory Lane in Texas.
The thing that makes this trio tough to judge is that they all come equipped with household names in the NASCAR world and therefore are attached to deep enough pockets to put them in good rides. That being said, it will be tough to tell how good any of them are until they reach the Cup series. Joey Logano is a good example of a guy who made the most of superior equipment only to struggle when he climbed in a Cup car and competed on an even playing field.
With equipment playing such a big part in success and failure at NASCAR’s elite level, can’t-miss prospects often do. On the other hand, you’ve got guys like Johnson, who struggled to finish in the top 10 in points in each of his two seasons in the Nationwide Series before Hendrick put him in a Cup car. Once he got to the big leagues, the guy from the blue-collar background had enough talent to rise to the top.
So, if you’re keeping score at home, you can go ahead and pencil in Johnson for another Cup crown. As for the other four breakout stars of the weekend? To quote my magic 8-ball, “Ask again later.”
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.