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The Yellow Stripe: It’s Jimmie Johnson’s World – We’re All Just Living In It

It’s as good as done, folks. Park the haulers, turn off the seven-post shaker rigs, put away the tools and send the shop guys home for some well-deserved R&R. It’s over. O.V.E.R. See you in Daytona.

Jimmie Johnson’s gonna three-peat, becoming just the second driver in NASCAR history to do so (joining the immortal Cale Yarborough, who won back-to-back-to-back titles (1976-78) some three decades ago). All that we’re waiting for now is the corpulent lady to belt out a little number, right?

Well, maybe not quite yet.

Johnson’s nearest rivals in the standings certainly aren’t giving up, and the unofficial mayor of NASCAR was unequivocal on the subject. “Hell, I don’t think this is the nail at all,” Jeff Burton said Sunday after losing 83 points on the lead.

“I don’t view things as over,” Greg Biffle echoed. “No. Uh-uh. We can catch them.”

Now on the one hand, as professional racecar drivers who – Kurt Busch aside – want to run every lap as hard as they can, this is perhaps a predictable reaction. So, let’s take a step back for a minute and look at the evidence a little more objectively. We’ll start with Sunday’s race.

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Johnson is the absolute King of Martinsville. He’s had 14 career Cup starts at the .526-mile paperclip, and here are his finishes: 35th, sixth, ninth, second, fourth, first, eighth, third, third, first, first, first, fourth and first. Stunning, simply stunning – an average finish of 5.6, and if we discount his first race, it’s 3.3. What happened on Sunday was hardly a surprise, although leading a whopping 339 laps (the most Johnson has ever led in a NASCAR race) made for an impressively dominant performance.

PUGLIESE: JIMMIE JOHNSON, MODERN DAY LEGEND?

Looking back at the four years of Chase history doesn’t paint a much prettier picture for the challengers, either. It’s not a huge statistical sample, true, but it does give us a sense of the task ahead for the pack if it is to overturn Johnson’s seemingly impregnable lead. In the first year of the playoff, title-winner Busch held a 96-point lead coming out of Martinsville. While he would never actually relinquish that, his advantage was whittled down over the final races and in the end, Busch won the title by just eight points over Johnson and 16 markers ahead of Jeff Gordon – the narrowest margin in Chase history.

In 2005, Tony Stewart held a slim 15-point edge post-Martinsville over (surprise, surprise) Johnson. Like Busch the year before, Smoke never gave up his lead and, in fact, built on his margin, taking a 52-point advantage to Homestead. Johnson crashed halfway through the race and finished 42nd, making Stewart’s 15th-place run easily enough to propel him to his second championship.

So, in the first couple years of the Chase, the champion-elect had the lead coming out of Martinsville. In the past couple of years it was a different story, however, as Johnson has surged from behind to win both titles.

Leaving Virginia in 2006, Johnson sat third in the standings, 41 points behind first-place Matt Kenseth and five back from Kevin Harvick. Two straight second-place finishes in Atlanta and Texas saw Johnson assume the points lead, while a third consecutive runner-up spot in Phoenix plus a ninth at Homestead wrapped up his first title. Johnson’s final winning margin was 56 points over Kenseth.

2007 was almost a mirror image – only a little better. Gordon held a 53-point lead coming out of Martinsville despite a Johnson victory; but the four-time champion couldn’t hold off the car he co-owns as Johnson ripped off two more wins to take the lead exiting Fort Worth. A fourth win in a row at Phoenix and a seventh in Miami saw Johnson finish 77 points ahead of his friend and rival to claim his second crown. Statistically speaking, Johnson’s 130-point swing over the final four races is the largest in Chase history, and so far he’s the only driver to manage such a turnaround.

In the 2008 standings, the Biff is already 149 points back. Burton is 152, while Edwards is a distant fourth, 198 points in arrears. Chase history would, therefore, need to be made for Johnson not to win a third title – and a more than historic effort is just what it will take to overhaul the No. 48 car when you look at how Jimmie performs at the next three tracks. Johnson has an average finish of 9.6 in Atlanta, where he won both races in 2007. In Texas, it’s better – an average finish of 8.5 – plus, he was second in the 2008 spring race and, as mentioned, won the 2007 Chase race. His numbers at Phoenix are even scarier, where his average finish is a miniscule 6.0; oh yeah, and he’s won the last two Cup events there. As the table of average finishes for his nearest rivals shows, it’s very much Advantage: Johnson.

Career Average Finishes: Chase Contenders
Driver Atlanta Texas Phoenix
Jimmie Johnson 9.6 8.5 6.0
Jeff Burton 16.5 16.2 11.1
Greg Biffle 14.8 26.1 16.4
Carl Edwards 12.9 15.7 14.5

Despite the numbers, Biffle is still bullish. “[The last] four tracks I absolutely love… I feel like we can beat them at these next four tracks,” he says.

So the optimism is there, but what is it going to take? Johnson’s “mulligan” for a start. If the No. 48 has a nightmare day in Georgia and finishes 40th or worse, a top-five finish for either Burton or Biffle would alter the points situation radically, turning this topsy-turvy season on its head one more time. We were ready to crown Kyle Busch once too, remember? OK, I know the situation feels different this time, and the strength of Johnson’s all-around team is without parallel in the sport.

Hope, though, springs eternal. Don’t forget this is still NASCAR, and anything can happen. A 10-cent hot dog wrapper or a loose lug nut can wreak havoc, and with the way the new car drives, sudden and unexpected right-side flat tires are more than just an occupational hazard. If Johnson opens the door in Atlanta, expect Burton, Biffle and even Edwards to try ramming their way through it. So maybe, just maybe, there is some hope – albeit a tiny glimmer of optimism. Johnson is inarguably in prime position for a third crown – but stranger things have happened, that’s for sure.

One final thing: To the future Mrs. Casey Mears, with love and best wishes from all of her friends who read this column… get well soon. See you at the track in 2009!”

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