Three weeks into August, the only thing missing from NASCAR’s Race to the Chase is that boxing announcer obnoxiously shouting, “In _THIS_ corner…” No, I’m not talking about the “wild card” race, or even the $3 million dollar _Sprint Summer Showdown of the Century!_ (Or so the phone company says). Instead, it’s some “playoff posturing” among the men already guaranteed to make the cut that’s becoming a major story. While “Junior Watch” continues, in between some frantic fighting over a wild card winner who will promptly fall flat over the final ten-race stint for the title the challengers to Jimmie Johnson’s five-time throne are making some serious statements – not mincing words or the accelerator towards a certain man who wears No. 48 on those boxing gloves.
But that’s where we find the biggest intrigue of all as the Dog Days of NASCAR August try valiantly to keep us entertained. We’ve seen a man known for being politically correct the second he gets on camera, the “Dudley Do Right” of Cup contenders get a bit, well, edgy _before_ the playoffs even start.
“We’ll just have to see how everybody responds to pressure when it really kicks up,” he said at Michigan. “As time goes by [in the Chase] and there’s less races, you’re towards the top of that sheet week in and week out, the voices start, the thoughts start in your head. You will be challenged in every area as an individual and as a team. In order to win a championship in today’s world, you’ve got to be rock solid. We will all learn in time who that guy is this year.”
“For five years, it was me.”
That’s set-the-table talk from the champ whose own voice has set a pattern of being more pointed as of late. There was the Loudon fiasco in July, faulty stops by his crew to the point Johnson actually called them out after the race for poor performances. Add in the Pocono dustup, courtesy one Kurt Busch and it’s clear the 2011 version of J.J. isn’t backing down from any fight – at the same time his rivals are making clear they’re going to be aggressive.
“There are a lot of times when the 22 is on the short end of the stick of the 48,” Kurt Busch said after sparks – and sheet metal – flew between the two after battling for third. “I have no regrets.”
“I just keep filing things away,” was Jimmie’s response, calling Kurt a “crybaby” during a physical confrontation on pit road. “I’ll remember this stuff. There’s a couple of other guys out there that have been pushing their luck, too.”
It’s a slight change of direction from the cockpit, especially considering that the challengers are the ones who need to dethrone the champ. But perhaps, with only one win to their credit the No. 48 team is actually feeling some heat. Jeff Gordon, across the street over at Hendrick Motorsports is running like he’s 20, not 40 years old; he hasn’t finished off the lead lap since Memorial Day, winning twice and surging to sixth in the standings. Further up the list, Kyle Busch has more victories – four – then anyone else on tour along with some newfound maturity to keep his head on straight while leading the points. Kevin Harvick, with three victories has figured out how to be at his best during the last 5 percent of these races – his Chevy could pop up at any time. And Carl Edwards’ main obstacle, signing his contract is now firmly in the rear-view mirror… with millions from Ford now backing his AFLAC arsenal heading into the Fall. And we haven’t mentioned Kurt, Matt Kenseth, or even the curious case of one Brad Keselowski…
To Johnson’s credit, he doesn’t need wins or anything on his resume come September other than a Chase berth. A champ is the champ until someone knocks them off that perch; and for all the Busch brothers’ posturing neither one has held the consistency during the Chase to effectively challenge J.J.’s unprecedented five-year reign. But clearly, this postseason field for the first time is comprised of not one, not two, but seven or eight guys who could easily take down the Lowe’s Chevrolet. You wonder how much Johnson actually senses it.
“We all have weaknesses and we all have strengths,” says Johnson. “You are going to be tested in all areas.”
Who knew for Johnson those tests would start a month before the postseason starts. Everyone, through Richmond in September will keep taking their best shots at the champ; can the No. 48 respond with the results they need to keep them quiet?
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