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Uphill Chase

Johnson has a long road ahead in quest for NASCAR title

September 21, 2006|Ed Hinton | Times Staff Writer

After leading the NASCAR standings nearly all of the regular season, Jimmie Johnson has plummeted to ninth place after one race of the playoffs. Which might mean he has the other nine Chase contenders just where he wants them.

With nine races left, "We're 139 points down," Johnson said this week. But, "We were 247 down in '04, with six races remaining, and lost [the championship] by only eight points."

He won four of those six races in in 2004, streaking through one of NASCAR's worst tragedies: One of his Hendrick Motorsports team's planes crashed, killing the 10 people aboard, on the way to a race he won.

With that in mind, "I look for those guys to be on quite a tear in the next five or six races," said Johnson's Hendrick teammate and mentor, four-time champion Jeff Gordon.

Had Johnson won the championship in 2004, it surely would have been the most memorable title in the history of NASCAR.

Instead, it was the nearest miss in the bittersweet saga of the son of a heavy equipment operator and a school bus driver from El Cajon, Calif. Johnson has been a championship contender late into every season since he arrived at the Nextel Cup level in 2002, but he still doesn't have a Cup to show for it.

This year, all year, Johnson has been saying he has a different feeling -- that this really is his year.

Even after Sunday, after being wrecked and winding up 39th at Loudon, N.H., to spoil his 31st birthday, Johnson didn't flinch from his feeling.

"My guys have done the math," he said of his No. 48 Chevrolet team. "We need to outscore the 29 [Chase leader Kevin Harvick, a friend of Johnson's since their formative years in Southern California] by 15.4 points [per race] from this point on to end up in the points lead."

That's a matter of three or four positions per race, roughly, on the variable points-award scale. And at several of the tracks remaining in the Chase, Johnson has been significantly stronger than Harvick.

Trouble is, Harvick is hot, having won the last regular-season race and the Chase opener, and Johnson has been cold since winning at Indianapolis on Aug. 6.

But after Indy, Johnson's team went into something of an experimental mode, seeking new advantages for the playoffs. The trial and error allowed Matt Kenseth to slip into the points lead late in the regular season, but Johnson was already locked into the playoffs, so position in the standings was largely psychological.

Then in the Chase, "We definitely got off to a start we didn't want," Johnson said. "That's racing. Stuff happens."

At Loudon, a small but vital part, a spark-plug wire, left Johnson's Chevrolet struggling on seven cylinders early, which he said got him in the position where he had the crash. He was knocked into the wall by Sterling Marlin, who was trying to avoid another car in a crowd of also-rans that Johnson, but for the misfire, wouldn't have been near.

It was all so maddening it was actually good for Johnson's unit of the team, Gordon figures.

"Sometimes I think they do better when they are angry and get behind," said Gordon, who finished third at New Hampshire and moved up to fourth in the standings.

As much distance as Harvick appears to have put himself from Johnson, "I know momentum," Johnson said. "It's easy to watch teams pick it up and have it. At the same time, teams lose it and [other] teams pick it up. We can trace back, and RCR [Harvick's team] has been slowly coming along.

"Now those guys are on fire. I've been in that position. [Then] the fire has gone out and somebody else comes along."

Johnson is heading into a series of tracks that beckons him to another hot streak.

Sunday, the Chase continues at Dover, Del., where Johnson is the defending race champion. In fact, in only nine starts at Dover International Speedway, Johnson has three wins and seven top-10 finishes. Harvick is winless at Dover, has led there only once, and is eighth among current drivers in the Chase in average finish there, 16.272 in 11 tries.

"We're going in with lofty expectations," Johnson said, "and feel we should be up front."

The next bright date for Johnson is Oct. 8, at Talladega, Ala. Johnson has swept the three restrictor-plate races this year, two at Daytona Beach, Fla., and one at Talladega. Harvick's plate-race finishes have been 14th, 23rd and ninth.

Then comes Charlotte, N.C., where Johnson won five of six points races, including four in a row, and then this year's Nextel Cup All-Star race, before finishing second in the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

The next week comes Martinsville, Va., where Johnson kicked in the burners on his 2004 onslaught by winning a second consecutive race coming off Charlotte -- only to learn immediately afterward that the Hendrick plane had crashed into a mountainside nearby, en route to the Martinsville race.

The next week, the grief-stricken team made it three wins in a row, at Atlanta, which again falls immediately after Martinsville. Another win, at Darlington, S.C., made it four of six. In the finale at Homestead-Miami, Johnson finished second when a win would have given him the championship.

Again, he's way behind. But Johnson is not deterred.

"History shows that we're good at that stuff," he said. "We'll just kind of leave it there."

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