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Voice of Vito: Jimmie Johnson in Jeopardy? Jeff Burton Surging? The 2 Square Off with a Title at Stake

Jimmie Johnson is hearing footsteps… for now.

That was the lesson learned by Saturday evening’s Bank of America 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, NASCAR’s crown jewel of racetracks, which proved a showcase on many different levels. The only Saturday night race in the Chase, the 500-miler was aired at the same time as a top NCAA football game, Major League Baseball’s ALCS and NLCS, and even during highlights from last week’s 4-cylinder division race at Berlin Raceway (alright, maybe that was just the bar I was at). The Grand Marshal of the event was possibly the wife of the next President of the United States, and – as writer Joe Menzer pointed out on NASCAR.com this week – the top-10 finishing order was a prelude to next year’s Chase field (well, except for maybe Jamie McMurray). But what we’ll remember most of all from the weekend is that the race for the championship just got a little bit tighter, and what was once the Johnson Show now has a new actor on stage in Jeff Burton.

It also exposed a few chinks in the armor that surrounds what normally is the unflappable No. 48 team.

Saturday’s race took on several different complexions as the night wore on. The first third of the race looked to be a battle between Johnson and Tony Stewart, while by the halfway point it appeared that Brian Vickers would pull the upset, overcoming a problem from May when his wheel flew into a camper in the stands. Next, Jeff Gordon would recover from a bout with the outside wall as Vickers hit it once more, battling up front with Mark Martin in a scene that harkened back to 10 years earlier – until Greg Biffle grabbed the lead from them both.

But as the race wound down, pit strategy placed another former Roush teammate,Burton, in position to grab the top spot. He took the point for the final 56 laps and held on to win his second race of the year, first of the Chase, and claim his first back-to-back set of top-five finishes since the Sprint Cup short-track swing back in March. Suddenly, the guy who will top 10 you to death all season long has come out of nowhere to win at an intermediate track, a 1.5-mile oval configuration which conveniently makes up three of the final five stops for the 2008 Chase for the Championship.

Oh, and Burton’s not that bad at Martinsville, either, which just so happens to be the next stop on the docket this Sunday.

The 41-year-old’s win was all the more impressive considering that as the race wound down, the No. 48 car was behind him waiting in the wings. With Chad Knaus fine-tuning on those last few adjustments in pit lane, it seemed only a matter of time before the car snapped in and powered towards the front after the race’s final restarts on laps 270 and 302. But as the top contenders showed their true colors, it turned out Johnson’s car was not up to par with the No. 31 or even those of Kasey Kahne, the Busch brothers or McMurray. Each time off turn 4, the back end of the Lowe’s Chevrolet would kick out, leading to another position lost heading through the race’s final laps. A car that normally is at its best at the end was fumbling and floundering instead, with Johnson looking more like his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the race’s waning laps than the traditionally stout No. 48 car. After climbing from his machine following Burton’s non-burnout victory lap, Johnson seemed uncharacteristically downtrodden – and perhaps even a bit rattled. The driver who once proclaimed LMS to be his house suddenly discovered that he had to share digs with a new tenant, one that had kicked him out of the penthouse and down a few floors when Carl Edwards‘s untimely exit should have already left him signing the lease on the building for the umpteenth straight time instead.

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“The first two-thirds was good for us, then we were junk at the end,” he said, sounding more like 2009 teammate Martin than his normally upbeat, glass-half-full-oh-no-it’s-over-flowing-I’m-so-stoked self. Johnson did lead twice for a race-high 67 laps, securing him the additional 10 bonus points to protect his lead in the Chase. But while he had been battling Edwards for the top spot, the ignition system in the No. 99 Ford saw to it that 69-point lead enjoyed by Johnson is no longer one he holds over Cousin Carl or Roush Fenway teammate Biffle. Now, it is the fellow Roush alumnist Burton that is in hot pursuit of Johnson in the standings, with not just Martinsville but a host of historically strong tracks for the native of South Boston, Virginia coming right up.

Upon exiting his car Saturday night, The normally California-cool Johnson made the remark that Burton got him really loose a few times while battling for the lead, but conceded that maybe he was just protecting his position. Not sure if Jimmie noticed or not, but that seasonally appropriate hunter-orange No. 31 was defending his position all right – all the way over in victory lane. That not-so-subtle disgust is to be expected from the two-time defending champion, though; it’s the heat of competition, the laps are winding down, and a shot at a win is slipping away – not to mention another 30 points that could become very useful down the stretch.

Two days later, much of Johnson’s frustration remained. “I had to take a lot of chances to get the results we did,” he said. “I don’t like putting myself in that situation. I almost lost the car a handful of times. So that frustration of being on pins and needles out there, trying to run as hard as you can, watching positions slip by – I’ve got a good hour of being upset in me. It will take a little while to get it out of my system.”

“Right now, I’m pissed about Saturday,” Johnson said. “But you know, tomorrow, Tuesday, whatever it is, I think we’ll be real good over there. Martinsville has been a great track to us.” But with a win, 10 top fives and 14 top 10s in 28 starts there, it’s been a great track for Burton as well. The RCR driver finished third there back in March, and the other tracks remaining that the tour will be visiting in recent weeks – Texas, Atlanta and Phoenix – he posted finishes earlier this season of sixth, 10th and sixth, respectively.

So with Burton on the move, does all of this seem a bit foreboding if you are a Johnson fan (or even Johnson himself?) Not so fast. As we head into the Chase’s second half, there are some other statistics which are even more telling; and if you are a driver other than Johnson, they are downright intimidating. Take a look at the the results of Johnson’s final five races of the year since 2003:

Track Start Finish
Martinsville 26 2
Atlanta 9 3
Phoenix 3 2
Rockingham 18 2
Homestead 10 3
Averages 13.2 2.4
2004:
Martinsville 18 1
Atlanta 8 1
Phoenix 13 6
Darlington 4 1
Homestead 39 2
Averages 16.4 2.2
2005:
Martinsville 6 3
Atlanta 12 16
Fort Worth 11 5
Phoenix 2 7
Homestead 32 40
Averages 12.6 14.2
2006:
Martinsville 9 1
Atlanta 3 2
Fort Worth 5 2
Phoenix 29 2
Homestead 15 9
Averages 12.2 3.2
2007:
Martinsville 4 1
Atlanta 6 1
Fort Worth 8 1
Phoenix 6 1
Homestead 1 7

The numbers tell the tale: Burton’s case is still pending, but Johnson’s been nothing short of spectacular when it comes to making one final push. Clearly, it’s the last few races of the season that Johnson and company excel at each year, building up a record I will take to the bank in any era, and under any points system at any time. You can pick apart about how there are a couple of different races mixed in with Rockingham or Darlington during Johnson’s career, that his 2003 results were under a different points format, 2004 was the first year of the Chase points system, or that 2005 kind of got derailed.

But if you do such a thing, you’re only deluding yourself. Simply put, Burton might want to savor this win and pop a few Prilosecs if he has some lying around from that last sponsor visit. Johnson may have heard footsteps Saturday night, but a look into the past will show that for all intents and purposes, barring some unforeseen disaster (i.e. – a meteor falls out of the sky and collects his Lowe’s Impala), those footsteps will fade over the final few weeks. Right now, Johnson and the No. 48 team look to be well on their way to a record-tying third consecutive title, and there’s not much Burton or anyone else can do about it.

So, enjoy the sound of those footsteps while they last; silence will come ’round the corner soon enough.

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