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No joke: Parity reigns

But Johnson still a threat to maintain grip

By George Diaz, Tribune Newspapers

July 20, 2011

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Parody has been the operative word in NASCAR for a long time, coinciding with a five-year championship run by Jimmie Johnson. Competition? It was a joke.

Fast forward to this season, when another P-word dominates the headlines:

Parity.

Ryan Newman's victory in New Hampshire gave the Sprint Cup circuit 13 winners in 19 races — equaling the total from the entire 2010 season.

The modern NASCAR record is 19 winners, set in 2001. Although that will be tough to break, there's no question that the rumble of stock cars brings all sorts of unique and intriguing possibilities every weekend.

The most pertinent of which involves the Chase for the Championship. Only 12 guys will make the cut after the field is set with seven races to go. The first 10 drivers in points qualify, but the last two slots will favor any driver with a victory.

That would benefit Dave Ragan, who is currently 13th in the points standings but holds one of those two wild-card spots and would qualify if the cutoff came today.

That leads us to the second pertinent question. Which drivers who made the cut in 2010 are in danger of missing it this season?

Jeff Burton definitely won't be back. He's in 25th place. But there are a handful of drivers precariously close to missing the cut. Tony Stewart is 11th, Clint Bowyer is 12th and Greg Biffle is 15th.

None of those guys has won a race this season and would likely have to end up in the winner's circle to qualify.

Count me among those who didn't think the new points system would spark so much scrambling for those last available slots. But the greater emphasis on winning now puts a greater squeeze on drivers on the edge.

And that's a good thing for this sport.

But you might want to keep an eye on Johnson too.

He's second in points now, similar to where he was last season as he entered the Chase.

I suspect Johnson isn't the guy anybody wants hovering around, too close for comfort. He knows how to finish, and just as important, he knows out to stay out of trouble.

He rarely gets into tiffs with other drivers on the track, where payback may be therapeutic but not very healthy from a competitive standpoint.

So we do have parity, and that's a good thing.

But that other P-word may yet creep into the conversation.

Everybody keep your eyes on that Johnson guy. Word on the street is that he can't be trusted.

gdiaz@tribune.com