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 10 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 second and fourth 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 Brian 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 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 second, first, second, and second 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.