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Historic Chase

Jimmy Johnson Looks For Repeat

Nothing lasts forever. When Jimmie Johnson climbed into his No. 48 for the first time this year, two trophies, fame and fortune didn’t make any difference at all. Even the winner of consecutive Sprint Cup championships is no better than his most recent race.

Johnson1_optIt’s also true that hope springs eternal in NASCAR’s premier series, partly because the game has been rigged to be that way. Entering the 20th race of the season, Johnson, who less than a year earlier had put together one of NASCAR’s truly memorable streaks of unbridled excellence, stood 387 points behind Kyle Busch, a castoff from his own team.

Times change. Success is fleeting. The good news for Johnson, who has a chance to become the second driver in NASCAR history to win three consecutive championships, is that so is failure.

“From the first championship to the second championship, I’ve had so much fun,” said Johnson early this year. “The first year (of the Chase, i.e., 2004) was so stressful. Being close, working on it, getting close, losing it. Then, to get it done took a huge amount of stress off our shoulders.

“Last year we had a great time. I only anticipate this year being better. We feel, looking back on last season, we made some mistakes, and we can still be stronger yet, and, hopefully, we can apply that this year and be stronger and better. I think we’re going to have to be.”

Fast forward about five months. Johnson hasn’t been “stronger yet.” There’s time, though. In the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the NASCAR championship format that grades the regular season on a curve, all things are possible, not for those who wait, but for those who merely remain among the chosen dozen.

The Chase rewards those who have a second wind.

Near the end of July, Kyle Busch, all of 23 years old, had left all the older drivers figuratively wheezing at track side. Busch had played LanceJohnson2_opt Armstrong to the kid with the basket on the front of his rusty Western Flyer, tossing newspapers onto doorsteps.

One could see the two-time, reigning champion, Jimmie Johnson, watching all this and thinking, “Such wasted effort.”

Johnson once trailed Jeff Gordon, the man he eventually vanquished, by 607 points, and because he turned on the afterburners as no one had ever done before, won the championship anyway.

It wouldn’t take a miracle for Johnson to become the second driver ever to win three straight championships. Should he do so, his trifecta would occur exactly 30 years after the previous one, achieved by Cale Yarborough from 1976-78.

If so, few would even consider the rather significant reality that Yarborough never had a Chase to serve as his crutch.

Johnson wasn’t dreaming when he said, simply, “I feel that we’ll be there at the end and have a shot at it.”

JohnsonGordon_optHere’s the way the Chase works. Points during the regular season mean almost nothing. Being in the top 12 means everything. The field of 12 goes through what is akin to a trash compactor. For instance, had the Chase begun after 19 races instead of 26, the range from Busch to 12th place (Denny Hamlin at the time) would’ve been compacted from 598 points to 70. In the case of Johnson, 387
to 60. Each driver is arbitrarily awarded 5,000 points, with 10 points added for each victory.

What happened to the Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton in major-league baseball’s Home Run Derby could easily to happen to Kyle Busch. Hamilton blasted 28 balls out of Yankee Stadium, more than Minnesota’s Justin Morneau managed in the whole competition. Hamilton was spent, though, in the final round, hitting three, and Morneau won the competition with a mere five.

After winning his second championship in 2007, Johnson played golf at Augusta National, attended the Super Bowl and visited the White House. He could have done those things during NASCAR’s long, hot summer, and it wouldn’t have made much difference, that is, if his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet could be counted on to roar back to life in the cool of autumn, as it did in the ’07 Chase.

NASCAR has become a matter of timing. Jimmie Johnson has become its Swiss watch.

“Every year I look for different things to motivate me,” said Johnson. “In a sense, chasing history is that. I would love to win three in a row and be one of two guys to ever do that.

“I look at Jeff (Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate), with four championships, and think, you know, I’ve got a lot of years of racing left inSpread_opt me. Is that a mark that I can get to? I look for things to motivate me… Everybody needs something to motivate himself. That’s my motivation. I want to win three in a row, then look for a fourth and keep rolling if I can.”

The lack of perspective and memory by many of the sport’s observers is startling. The reviews celebrating Busch’s remarkable performance almost completely ignored the reality of the system NASCAR uses to determine the championship and, oh, by the way, create excitement no less conjured up than by the Wizard of Oz.

The 387 points separating Johnson from Busch were as worthless as Confederate currency after the American Civil War. Nice to have in the wallet. Seemed substantial at the time. Essentially, though, worthless.

NASCAR’s “every man’s a (potential) king” policy notwithstanding, Johnson seemed notably uninterested in spreading any of his wealth to others, particularly not a cocksure 23-year-old cast off from his own team. Kyle Busch won a single race in 2007 while he was a member of the Hendrick stable along with Johnson, Gordon and Casey Mears.

“I haven’t been around or really cared if people liked or didn’t like the fact that I won two championships,” Johnson opined. “I worked my ass off to get here, and I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing.”

“Kyle is fast. We know that.”

Rick Hendrick, whose Chevrolets combined to win half the Cup races in 2007, shoved Kyle Busch out the door to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr. AsChamp_opt the sport’s most popular driver, heir to the legacy of his martyred father, Earnhardt Jr. could win the championship, too. The difference between Busch and other contenders is that his performance, leading up to the Chase, has been phenomenal. The difference between Johnson and other contenders is that he has been better than anyone else in previous Chases.

Johnson was concerned, though, because he and crew chief Chad Knaus — along with most other drivers and their crew chiefs — had been having difficulty adapting to the full implementation of the generic COT (Car of Tomorrow, a misnomer if ever there was one) cars mandated by NASCAR. The COTs had been used in 2007 mostly on shorter tracks. Everything about the COT is more standardized than its predecessors. Every tolerance is tighter. Adjustments make less difference.

“Your hands are tied,” said Johnson. “There are only so many areas where you can work.
In the past, there were five ways to figure out how to make your car do whatever you needed it to do better. Now, with the aerodynamic rules that we have, the common body, the chassis, the way that it is… we’re all kind of boxed in.

“It’s frustrating to a competitor. NASCAR is smiling. That’s exactly what they want. When you’re working on them every day, trying to find speed… that’s the challenging part.”

Johnson, though, was getting better all the time. Though he’d only won at Phoenix, early in the year, Johnson rolled through June and July finishing ninth or better six times in a span of eight races.

“The pressure builds, but until last year, I had never been a part of something like that and won that many races (10) in a season,” said Johnson. “We knew we had something special last year; we really did. We hope to get back to that point, but the competition is so tough.

“The drivers, crew chiefs and other team owners didn’t enjoy last year. They didn’t enjoy us winning so much… It’s a long season. We’ve got a lot of racing left. Our first goal is to be in the Chase, and we’re looking good there. Hey, this is big-time auto racing. It’s not an easy deal.”

Another Johnson advantage is that he already knows it isn’t easy, even when it looks that way. Busch has never entered a Chase as the odds-on favourite, and he could be susceptible to the false security that comes with the experience that it is easy.

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