Danny Peters · Monday October 18, 2010
There are three slam dunk certainties in this wonderful and crazy life we live: Death, taxes, and Jimmie J stepping it up in the Chase.
That’s been proved again this past month, as the champion followed up a ho-hum 25th-place run in the opening race of the postseason at Loudon with a fear-inducing “maximum points day” win at Dover, then a hard-charging second-place effort at Kansas, followed by back-to-back third-place runs at Fontana and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Coupled with his fifty regular season bonus points, courtesy of his five victories, it’s been enough to vault the four-time champ right back where he likes to be: atop the Chase pile by some 41 markers with the stretch run right around the corner. It’s an ominous sign for the competition, no doubt.
The great thing about a truly top echelon sport, though – NASCAR included – is that no two seasons are ever the same. Previous form is most assuredly an indicator of future success, but, like the stock market, especially in the last couple years it’s no guarantee. Some fans will grumble and grouse that this theory is definitively bogus, claiming Johnson’s been running roughshod over the pack in searing fashion these past few years. But any true aficionado will recognize change, year on year, as a cast iron certainty. Just ask Kevin Harvick to compare and contrast 2010 and 2009, right?
Now come on, be honest. Hands up, how many of you thought Jimmie Johnson would wipe the floor with the competition this past Saturday at the sport’s home track? Were you positive we were looking at another “maximum points day” for the man whose blood turns ice cool when the big prize is on the line? Running at a place that’s nicknamed “Jimmie’s House,” did you figure this race was the day the Chase became all but mathematically over? Me too, truth be told. I was all but certain Johnson would win his second Chase race of 2010 at a track he excels and I was sure, come the checkered flag, his putative points lead would be of a significant ilk.
Lap 35 in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 showed why, then, despite what is said away from the action it’s the on-track stuff that counts. Johnson’s spin could have been disastrous but – critically — he avoided making contact with anything solid while turning sideways. It’s this kind of good fortune that has served Johnson well in the last four Chases, no question; but at the same time, it’s something of a nebulous argument, as love him or hate him you can’t deny the man has flat out wheeled his way to each of his four straight titles. So with 300 laps still to run, and with memories of a 37th-place finish in the May race fresh in his mind, Johnson simply set out working his way back up through the field. As the charge didn’t stop until he was back out front, he showed once again the type of poise under pressure, an uncanny knack of getting it done when needed that’s made him a four-time champ.
But a third-place finish isn’t exactly a victory, and Johnson’s post-race comments revealed an admission of weakness at this stage of the game we haven’t often seen from him. “Coming into the Chase, I didn’t have that confidence…” he said of his own title prognostications. “I didn’t think we were in that position [to win it]. Maybe that is what everybody was noticing and thought we were vulnerable because of that. I now know we’re capable of it, and tonight we proved to ourselves more than anything that we can come back and fight through issues and still get a good finish.”
So with the emotions in check, Johnson should just waltz to the title now, right? Next up, it’s Martinsville and, oh, did I mention the champ’s pretty good at the smallest, slowest, and yet often most enthralling track on the slate? He’s won five of the last eight there and only finished outside the top-10 once in 17 attempts: blindingly good numbers. It would, then, be a shock to see anything but at least another top-3 finish — or better — for the point leader. Problems for either or both of Denny Hamlin (-41 points) or Kevin Harvick (-77 points), Johnson’s two closest challengers, and a strong finish for the champion could yet turn 2010 into another team 48 procession. And yet, stranger things have happened. Don’t forget, either, Johnson’s win at Charlotte this time last year gave him a 90-point cushion over perennial runner-up Mark Martin and a 135-point lead over teammate Jeff Gordon. It’s certainly closer this year, for sure, if not perhaps as close as some would like it to be.
So, realistically speaking, barring some severe mechanical issues, or the No. 48 hauler driver getting irretrievably lost between Charlotte and Alabama, the 2010 Championship looks like it will come down to a dogfight between arguably the three best drivers of the season: Johnson, Hamlin, and Harvick. The champ is undeniably in the catbird’s seat, but Hamlin’s won the last two at Martinsville and Harvick, despite his relative lack of success there (an 18.1 average finish and just seven top-10’s in 18 attempts), has run with supreme consistency all year. Overall, Harvick has 13 top-5’s and 21 top-10’s (plus three eleventh-place finishes) in 31 races and an average finish of 7.6 in the first five Chase events. Something around that mark would almost certainly see him slip further behind Johnson, but it would keep him more than in touch headed towards the Alabama lottery the following weekend.
Yes, the four-time champion looks prohibitively good, dominant even as of late; and if the No. 48 team runs well at Martinsville (as close to a racing certainty as you’re ever going to get) and escapes Talladega with a mid-to-high double-digit point lead, the engraver can all but start inscribing the name “Johnson” on the Sprint Cup trophy. Are the Chase stars, then, magically aligning once again for Johnson, Knaus and company? Quite possibly. For Hamlin and Harvick, both seeking a maiden Cup crown, the time is very definitely now. Throughout the season, Johnson’s two closest mathematical challengers have shown fortitude, guts, an ability to bounce back from adversity and, crucially, the way to win. A stretch of five flawless races from the No. 11 or the No. 29 can, I believe, get it done.
So rightly or wrongly, it’s my humble opinion that while J.J.’s still scary, scary good (and he still can all but wrap it up next weekend) Johnson is now a man that can be beaten. To do so, however, is a tall order – not the least when the failure of a ten-cent part can kill a championship dream stone cold dead. The pay window is opening wide; so it’s time for Hamlin and Harvick to step up, like they never have before with a title on the line, and give us a compelling Chase finale.
Five to go: Have at it boys…
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