It was over. Done and dusted.
The fat lady was halfway through her last aria; the trophy had been all but etched, and the historians were in the process of rewriting the NASCAR history books.
Fans were switching off in droves and thoughts, for many, were turning to Daytona in February 2010.
Exiting Talladega, Jimmie Johnson the three-time champ had a prohibitive 184-point lead after a hugely fortuitous sixth-place finish with just three races left to go in the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup. There was no way a driver who has had his foot on the collective jugulars of the other 11 Chase participants these past three years would let such a sizable advantage slip.
No way. In fact, one writer even went so far as to suggest the only real question left was what dress Mrs. Johnson would wear to the banquet.
In short, Jimmie J. was all but crowned as the 2009 Champion. And nothing… or no one… could change that.
And then, suddenly, maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t over after all. Enter Sam Hornish Jr.
Now, it’s fair to say the triple IndyCar champion Hornish has at times resembled a 3,400-pound piñata in his nascent NASCAR career. This time, it wasn’t necessarily his fault as he had help from David Reutimann – another driver not immune to making some serious on track snafus – who got into the No. 77 car which, in turn, saw Hornish clip Johnson and take the champ out of contention.
Listening to Johnson talk afterwards was interesting, though, as for a driver who normally has ice water flowing through his veins, he was more than just a little bit bitter.
“I just wish the (No.) 77 could have ran the bottom and held onto his car,” he said. “Seems to lose control of that thing a lot and hit a lot of things throughout the course of a race. My focus is more on that aspect of it. Realize it was just lap 3 or 4… whatever it was… just drive his car.”
Johnson went on to say he hadn’t “seen” the incident, but you can’t help but feel someone on his team would have discussed what happened before the press conference.
Still, it was a case of some seriously sour grapes from the man who has had more than his fair share of luck in the Chase.
But regardless, what the lap 3 incident and subsequent 38th-place finish for Johnson did do was open up a small sliver of opportunity for Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, who are now 73 and 112 points back, respectively.
And in a Chase – and indeed a sport – that was on life support as it was, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Johnson hater – far from it, in fact. What Johnson has achieved these past three years is both historic and supremely impressive.
But the same guy winning the entire time gets boring. No question.
All that said, with two races to run, Johnson still has a sizable advantage. But all the pressure is on the presumptive four-time champ. Were he to blow it from here, it would be one of the biggest stories in NASCAR, perhaps ever.
And although the No. 48 team, led by the evil genius himself Chad Knaus, are used to dealing with the pressure, Johnson finds himself in a position he could only have imagined in his nightmares.
This then plays into Martin’s hands. And for a driver who has all but lived and died by the inexorable chase for points these past three decades, it might just be the chance of a lifetime, and it might just be the perfect time for it to happen.
In a column prior to Texas on Yahoo! Sports, Mark’s son Matt made some fascinating points about his Dad.
“I don’t think he’s feeling too much pressure right now,” he said. “He’s already done so much. He’s seen everything a NASCAR driver could possibly see… he doesn’t need to win the championship. He’d love to win it. But if he doesn’t, he doesn’t. It isn’t going to bother him if he doesn’t.”
What this says to me is that Martin doesn’t need the validation a championship would bring. And that kind of attitude can really play into his favor as the buttoned-up, starch collared No. 48 team have it all to lose and Martin everything to gain.
It’s still 73 points, you say. Yes, true. But how many of you believed Johnson would destroy his Lowe’s Chevy on lap 3 at Texas? (Anyone answering yes here is a liar or a psychic….)
The next argument we’ll hear from the Johnson apologists is that the No. 48 is a “can’t miss” driver at Phoenix, having won three of the last four races there, including a sweep last season and an extraordinary average finish of 5.4. And as valid as that argument is, Martin’s not bad there either. Let’s not forget, Martin won the first race of the season at PIR, not to mention leading the most laps.
If we see a repeat of the results of Race 8 at Phoenix early on this year, Jimmie would head into Miami with a precarious 43-point lead. It would be his smallest advantage heading into the final race; he was 63 points ahead in 2006, 86 points up in 2007 and a whopping 141 markers to the good last year. It would, for all intents and purposes, prevent Johnson being able to simply “hold serve” and finish in the mid-teens to guarantee a title.
But this is Martin, I hear some of you argue. He’ll find a way to screw it up. Maybe. However, that’s the old Martin you’re talking about. This is a different man, a Martin who retired for the first time some four years ago; a Martin who’s just “happy to be here,” to use the old cliché; a Mark Martin who’s just racing for the love of racing. And that only makes him more dangerous. Johnson needs the validation of a fourth title. Martin, quite simply, doesn’t.
Back to his son Matt: “He’s excited to be doing what he’s doing. But, he only wanted to win at least one race. He’s won five. He qualified on the pole all these times. He’s excited. He’s just enjoying doing what he does.”
And that, folks, might just be the key.
Now this time next week, we might be writing about a poor day for the No. 5 car, a dominant victory for Johnson, and the title will be all but over again. Another second-place finish won’t spell misery for Martin. He’s raced his socks off this season, and he’s been calmer and more relaxed than ever before.
But for now, fans of the most popular driver not named Dale Earnhardt can dream that after all these years of near-misses and excruciating disappointment, this might just be the year something miraculous happens. And if this season is to end in a championship no one thought possible as Martin flipped on his roof at Talladega, it would be something truly special and not just in NASCAR – it would be something truly special in any sport you care to name. Up there, for example, with the rag-tag team of U.S. kids beating the mighty Russians in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
And for the fans who have struggled through a truly horrible year, it would be a fairy tale ending no-one would have thought possible.
Yes, chances are it won’t happen. But this morning, at least there’s hope. And hope, dear readers, is a precious and wonderful thing.