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Full Throttle: Magic Number for Jimmie Johnson

The Fall Classic is not over yet, and the thought of baseball playoffs can bring about the thought of magic numbers. When a baseball team is about to secure a playoff spot, people begin counting down their magic number, a combination of wins for their team and losses for the team chasing them. With three races left in the 2009 Sprint Cup season, it is now time to talk about the magic number for Jimmie Johnson to clinch his record-setting fourth consecutive title.

The calculation of Johnson’s magic number is relatively simple. The winner of a race, if he leads the most laps, scores 195 points. There are three races left in the season, so doing the basic math, a driver can score 585 points if he can pull off the trifecta and win the last three races and lead the most laps in each of them.

Second-place Mark Martin has 6,064 points following Talladega. If he scores the maximum points over the next three races, he’ll end the season with 6,649 points. Johnson, at this point, has 6,248 markers following his sixth-place finish at Talladega. Subtracting 6,248 from 6,649 leaves 402 points that Johnson needs to score over the next three races to ensure himself of his fourth championship. That translates into 134 points per race, the amount of points awarded for a 10th-place finish.

Considering Johnson’s track record in the Chase, that certainly would seem a very simple thing for the No. 48 team to accomplish, but it is by no means a given. There have been 33 races this season, and in 11 of those races, Johnson has finished worse than 10th. In fact, from Pocono through Michigan during the summer, Johnson had finishes of 13th, 12th and 33rd over that three-race span. There is no question that the team could go on a cold streak and open the door for Martin, Jeff Gordon or even Juan Pablo Montoya, but the odds are strongly against it.

Since (ironically) Charlotte in 2007 when Johnson finished 14th, he has only finished worse than 10th twice during the Chase: 15th, at Texas and Homestead last year. However, he finished first at Phoenix in between those two so his average finish over those three races was only fractionally over 10. During the six years of the Chase’s existence Johnson has finished below 10th in 14 races out of 57 that have been run. He did it four times during his first championship season in 2006 and three times in 2004 and 2005. Interestingly, he’s never gone through an entire Chase without finishing below 10th in two races, so there is still some light at the end of the tunnel for his pursuers.

One other point to remember: While Johnson’s had 14 finishes worse than 10th, he’s won 17 races during that same time span. Johnson’s main concern is having a substantial lead before he gets to Homestead. Johnson did finish second at Homestead during the first Chase in 2004, but has not fared nearly as well since then, finishing seventh in ’07, ninth in ’06, 15th last season and 40th in ’05. If he stumbles before the final race of the season and allows Martin or one of the other close Chasers the opportunity to get close to him heading into the final event, anything is possible.

More than likely though, Johnson will be able to start-and-park at Homestead and sit on the pit box eating ice cream like Harry and the crew in Days of Thunder. If Johnson can gain another 80 points over his next closest competitor at Texas, all he’ll have to do is start the final two races and he’ll be the 2009 and four-time consecutive champion.

Writer’s note: For those people who hate the Chase, Johnson would have also taken the points lead using the old points system this past weekend, but the race would be a lot closer than the 184 points it is now.

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