For the first time in nearly five years, one can safely say Jimmie Johnson's back appears to be against the wall.
The five-time defending Sprint Cup champion sits 10th in the standings after two races in the Chase, 29 points behind leader Tony Stewart. Under the first-year point system, where payouts for each position decrease by one marker from second to 43rd finishing spot, Johnson effectively needs to make up 29 finishing positions on Stewart, 22 on current championship runner-up Kevin Harvick, and 18 on third-placed Brad Keselowski over the last eight weeks in order to extend his championship reign to a sixth season.
This is not unprecedented territory for Johnson. In 2006, the first year of their streak, Johnson sat 156 points behind then-leader Jeff Burton thanks to a last-lap crash in the fourth playoff event at Talladega. The wreck - triggered by Johnson's then teammate Brian Vickers and also collecting Dale Earnhardt Jr. - seemed to signal another season that would pass without a title for the El Cajon, CA, driver and his Chad Knaus-led team.
Instead, they reeled off five-straight finishes of first or second - including a win at Martinsville - to overhaul Matt Kenseth for the lead with two races left and held on to score their first title.
With all of that in mind, Johnson heads to what has undoubtedly been his best track, especially in recent seasons: Dover International Speedway.
Six of Johnson's 54 victories have come at Dover, including season-sweeps during his rookie season of 2002 and again in 2009. With 171 laps led Sunday, he would pass the 2000 laps-led plateau. Based on his performance there over the last five events - starting with his June 2009 triumph - that should be a piece of cake. Johnson has led 191 laps or more in each of those five events for a grand total of 1192 led out of 1999 laps run. He was a lap down at the end of the June 2010 race after a late pit-road speeding penalty.
If Johnson is to make a run towards another title, Dover is the perfect venue for him to jumpstart it. Conversely, a less-than-stellar showing Sunday - or even a good one that fails to take a chunk out of his gap to Stewart, Harvick, Keselowski, and the other title contenders ahead of him - could be the beginning of the end of one of the most dominant runs by a single team in the history of professional sports.