On a day where this Chase became clearly defined as a battle between just two, Jimmie Johnson celebrated the seventh victory of the season at Martinsville with more than just a win at stake. Pulling the latest punch in this yearlong prizefight atop the standings, Johnson was able to close the gap between himself and championship leader Jeff Gordon to just 53 points.
It also draws him ever closer to matching his Hendrick Motorsports teammate on a much bigger stage: the NASCAR record book.
The defending champ now stands on the precipice of challenging for an unprecedented second straight Chase title. It would be the first time since the advent of the playoff system that’s happened; more importantly, in an era where the word “repeat” in any major sport is rarely uttered due to both parity and change, it would be a tribute to the way in which the No. 48 team has kept the core of their team intact while focusing on the task at hand.
It’s also symptomatic of how times have changed.
In a different place, in a different time, remaining on top of your game in this sport wasn’t quite as hard. In fact, when the formula for the modern points system first came to pass in 1975, dynasties appeared on NASCAR’s doorstep as reliably as kids go out to trick or treat on Halloween. In just its second season of use, Cale Yarborough won the first of what would become three consecutive Cup titles, a mark that set the stage for a remarkable run of mini-dynasties. Since that streak came to an end in 1979, NASCAR has seen a total of five more back-to-back championships from a who’s who list of soon-to-be first ballot Hall of Famers: Darrell Waltrip (1981-82), Dale Earnhardt (1986-87, 1990-91, 1993-94) and Gordon (1997-98).
But after Gordon’s record-setting ’98, he lost crew chief Ray Evernham halfway through the following season – and with that, the ability to capably defend a series title seemingly disappeared. As NASCAR’s popularity exploded, so too did the pressure and demands of being a reigning champion. From the minute the trophy gets displayed at the Waldorf each December, the titleholder is subjected to numerous appearances, series sponsor obligations, and subsequent media frenzy to the point where just getting to the track each weekend can be a relief in itself. It’s a burden a select few are given – and one that even fewer can handle.
Those chaotic circumstances make finding a rhythm tough, indeed – just ask two-time champ Tony Stewart, who slumped to 11th last season after capturing his second title. Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch are just some of the others who fell victim to serious slumps in their most recent “year after” experiences. Meanwhile, in their place has stepped an increasing number of top-tier teams to fill the void – the number of cars capable for challenging up front has increased from a handful a decade ago to well over two dozen now.
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With that in mind, what’s made the difference for Johnson?
“I think my mental strength is much greater than what it was last year,” said Johnson when this year’s battle began back at Richmond. “I think the team is stronger. Experience helps everyone on so many levels in motorsports, and I think life in general.”
That unforgettable scenario included coming back from over 165 points down in a playoff year where Johnson was left for dead. In ’07, he had a similar slump during the regular season – a mid-year suspension of crew chief Chad Knaus for six weeks left the team in a lurch and Johnson in the wall on one too many occasions. It was a run of rough luck that left them down, but never completely out – and when Knaus came back into the fold mid-August, the two began a streak that put pressure on Gordon and left them the series’ top seed with six wins entering this latest version of the playoffs.
Since then, the No. 48 has yet to fall lower than third points, getting their consistency together enough to keep teammate Gordon from running away with the trophy just yet.
“If you get off to a fast start in the Chase, you start protecting, and if you get off to a slow start, you start charging,” Johnson explained back in September. “That’s the balance we are trying to find of where the team works, and that harmony, to use a corny phrase, just working right week after week.” That harmony also appears to have hit full song through a spirited battle with his teammate. In his best position to win his first title since 2001, the Rainbow Warrior has followed up his regular season dominance with two wins in the Chase to put himself in position to capitalize. But Johnson is no slouch, either – his seven wins are not only a series high, but two more than his total during all of 2006.
“We bring the best out in each other,” Johnson said of Gordon’s pressure-packed assault, leaving him with no choice but to put his best foot forward. So far, he’s done just that; throughout the Chase, he has yet to finish a playoff race lower than 14th. All too often in the past, sticking that neck out proved disastrous. But in this rare case, it turns out finally reaching the pinnacle of his sport has actually proved to be the catalyst for Johnson’s sustained run at the top.
“To be able to go through the five seasons of almost getting (the title), the letdown, and then getting it last year; and knowing that we can do it, we’ve been there and we can fight through this (builds confidence),” he said. “You don’t have to have a perfect final 10; stay focused on the right things, the championship could be there.”
Up to this point, that’s exactly what this team has done; and it’s what makes their Chase an unprecedented success, regardless of the final outcome.