For defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the favorites in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, the goal of the Challenger Round was simply to avoid being eliminated.
But with the Contender Round beginning this weekend at Kansas Speedway – and said round ending with an elimination race at the unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway – Johnson figures the pressure to win races and advance to the next round will go up from here on in.
“I feel like for a lot of the Chasers in that first round of the event, you just really kind of had to be ahead of that bottom four,” he said today at Kansas Speedway. “And then we all moved on. And as we get closer to Homestead, I think the intensity for the Chasers is going to start multiplying a bunch as we go.
“I think it starts here. With Talladega at the end of this block, I think the pressure is really going to start ramping up for everybody.”
From the end of last weekend’s Challenger Round finale at Dover, Johnson has stressed how important it will be for himself and the remaining Chasers to score a win either at Kansas or next weekend at Charlotte to avoid the stress of having to survive Talladega in order to reach the Eliminator Round (Top 8).
Johnson feels confident that he can accomplish that mission, which isn’t unreasonable of him considering that he won the Coke 600 at Charlotte back in May. As for Kansas, he expects track position to play a major role in the outcome due to a racing groove that isn’t as wide as some other tracks.
“It puts a huge importance on today in qualifying and the pit road pick,” Johnson said of this afternoon’s qualifying session, slated to begin around 5:45 p.m. ET. “And then when you get in the race, the strategy. We saw a lot of two-tire stuff when we were in the spring and I would imagine it would be the same. So, track position is really going to be the name of the game.”
Johnson is also helped by a decent mental outlook when it comes to Kansas. He’s had a lot of success there and while some drivers may despise the tricky 1.5-mile oval, he usually enters the heartland with a good idea of where he wants to be over the course of the weekend.
“I think we’ve had examples of tracks and drivers over the years that some people just don’t like going to them and that black cloud follows them around and they have a bad day,” he said. “It’s one small piece, I think, of our success and our championships is that the races in the Chase have been good tracks for us. And we show up with smiles on our faces and we kind of know what we’re looking for if we’re off base.”
Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.
There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.
Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.
Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.
By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.
With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.
This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit.
Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.
Two privateers have started the season on a high note.
Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.
The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.
Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.
In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.