The Frontstretch: Johnson's Miracle Comeback by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday November 5, 2006

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Johnson's Miracle Comeback

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday November 5, 2006

 

Jimmie Johnson has no business leading the Nextel Cup point standings.

None at all.

In eight Chase races, Johnson has himself just four Top 10 finishes. He spent half of the first Chase race in New Hampshire in the garage after hitting the wall. He ended the Talladega race on a wrecker after getting slammed…by his own teammate. Yet, despite all the obstacles, that's exactly where NASCAR's "Mark Martin" of his generation found himself perched after the smoke cleared following Sunday's wild finish in Texas…leading the points. As far back as 165 points out of the top spot just five races ago, Johnson left the Lone Star State not only ahead in the standings, but with the makings of a small cushion…17 in front of second place Matt Kenseth and 78 up on third place Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with just two races left for them to catch him.

If you're keeping score at home, that means a 182-point gap swing happened in the span of a little over a month, a Herculean amount when it comes to NASCAR land. In fact, should Johnson go on to win the title, it'll easily be the best comeback since Alan Kulwicki came back from 278 points down with six races left to win the 1992 championship by a scant ten points over Bill Elliott.

With history in the making, it begs a simple question…how did this happen?

Certainly, Johnson wouldn't have gotten back into the Chase without a little luck. Drivers who have been the most successful during the playoffs - Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards - aren't the ones fighting for a championship. Johnson's point total scored during this year's Chase - 1,112 - would have put him 2nd and 4th in the standings at this juncture in the Chase in the past two years. But constant poor luck experienced by the other competitors has opened the door.

Still, in order to seize that opportunity the No. 48 had to perform - and performance appeared to be the last thing on their minds as recently as four weeks ago. Their own teammate had taken away a possible win at Talladega, sending the car reeling to a 24th place finish. The gravity of the moment appeared to consume a defeated Hendrick operation - it seemed there was no way would Johnson come back from that madness. At Lowe's the next weekend, there was more written about whether or not Johnson and Vickers would stay friends instead of whether the No. 48 would come back and win the title. The points didn't seem to matter anymore…or so anyone thought.

That's the irony in this whole thing; it's that small shift in media attention, it seems, that may have given this team a major assist to get them headed in the right direction. For the first time in the three year history of the Chase, the No. 48 team itself wasn't under total scrutiny. In 2004, Johnson was clearly the favorite in the Chase, and his every move was documented, even when he fell behind early on. Last year, Johnson played the role of primary challenger to Tony Stewart, getting put under the microscope as the driver who was always the bridesmaid and never the bride.

This time, the pressure was off. It was Martin, not Johnson, answering questions about an inability to win a championship, while Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick, and Jeff Burton became the chic picks to romp through the field en route to the title. No one was mentioning Johnson…which meant the No. 48 could fly under the radar. They could clear their minds from a teammate incident gone awry, take the time to get their program together, and return to the Chase with a new sense of direction.

Oh, what a new sense of direction it's been. Johnson has finished 2nd, 1st, 2nd, and 2nd since he found himself labeled "out" of Chase contention. Well, shows you how much us media know about things. It was easy to forget that Johnson's optimism far outweighs the pessimism of the future veteran he's compared with in Martin. It was easy to forget that before a slumping summer and early Fall, it was Johnson, not Kenseth, chopping the rest of the Nextel Cup field to pieces. Rest assured, though, this team didn't forget…and now it's paying off.

"Our guys are doing awesome," said Johnson after climbing out of the car on Sunday. "This team never gives up. We've raced our way back into this (championship) and that's something I'm very proud of. Regardless of how this turns out, this Lowe's team and Chevrolet has been awfully strong and I'm very proud of these guys."

Pride is one thing; actually bringing home the trophy is another. Thanks to a spirit that never wavered, Johnson stands just two races away from taking home the hardware he's coveted since his rookie year on tour.

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Gvav1
11/06/2006 06:07 AM
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Looks like the Champ will be crowned via skill and luck. Vroom!

Julie
11/06/2006 06:20 AM
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Pretty amazing that the same media, while reminding us of his incredible comeback in 2004, pretty much stuck a fork in him this year with still six races to go. Haven’t they been watching the sport long enough to know that you never count this team out?

hoban
11/06/2006 09:19 AM
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It is far from a miracle. This chase is far from crowing a champion. It will reward who is the best of the mediocre this year.

Denny
11/06/2006 08:08 PM
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Go JJ Go. Keep the title where it belongs, with a Hendrick car.

Mark
11/07/2006 12:21 AM
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Pretty doggone good argument to do away with the chase altogether, don’t you think?

It appears to me that the Chase has the same 2 guys at the top of the points heap now, as was there at race 26, they just ran a bunch of bad races to get there. It was the same lackluster performance by the same Matt Kenseth, now in 2nd, that caused the chase to begin with.
It wasnt that Kenseth was mediocre all season long, it was just that he did not have to run hard at the end of the season to win the championship.

Brian France, do away with the chase.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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