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Inside track

Jimmie Johnson has a good shot to repeat as Nextel Cup champion, which nobody has done since 1998, and that was under the old format

February 22, 2007|Ed Hinton | Special to The Times

How hard is it to repeat as Nextel Cup champion in this era of stampede competition and crapshoot playoffs?

"Go to Vegas," said Tony Stewart, who won the NASCAR title in 2005 but missed the Chase last year. "Let them tell you what the odds are of spinning a ball on a roulette wheel and hitting 00, and it coming up again the next time."

There hasn't been a repeat champion since Jeff Gordon in 1998, and that was under the old, season-long points system with no "Chase for the Cup."

The Chase format alone "makes it two or three times harder to win [the championship]," said Rick Hendrick, the last team owner to send a driver to consecutive titles -- and the one with a chance to do it this year.

But 2006 champion Jimmie Johnson has the best shot any driver could have at repeating under current conditions, say Hendrick and Gordon, who co-own Johnson's branch of the Hendrick Motorsports empire.

In fact, Hendrick rates Johnson's chances as "awfully good."

That's because, in Stewart's roulette analogy, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have hit numbers adjacent to 00 all five seasons they've been in the Cup series.

That is, they've been contenders every time. The ball finally rolled an extra millimeter for them last year. So it's entirely possible to win again this year, as close as they come every year.

"Just to think back, we've led the points all five years and been in contention," said Johnson, risen from humble beginnings in the Southern California desert, the son of a heavy-equipment operator and a school bus driver. "So it's been a magical thing here."

All three years of the Chase, Johnson has started the final race at Homestead-Miami with a shot at the title. In 2004, he won four of the last six races and fell only eight points short of Kurt Busch, who benefited from a NASCAR miracle in the finale. A wheel came off Busch's car in the last split second at which he could duck into the pits and avoid a disastrous time loss.

"We definitely had the eight-point one slip away," Johnson said. And counting other near misses in his five years, "I think there could have been two or three [championships] in there, which is sort of amazing."

Said Hendrick: "I feel like the chemistry is as good with Chad and Jimmie right now as it was with Ray [Evernham] and Jeff when they did 'em back to back."

But the scramble of the Chase isn't the only obstacle.

"Back then we didn't have four top contenders," said Hendrick, picking his four top threats to a Johnson repeat:

* Stewart, the 2002 and 2005 champion, in Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolets.

* Matt Kenseth, 2003 champion and 2006 runner-up to Johnson, in Roush Fenway Racing Fords.

* Kasey Kahne, winner of six races last season, most of any driver on the tour, in Dodges fielded by Evernham, now a team owner.

* And the maestro himself, four-time champion Gordon, still Hendrick's senior driver.

Upstart Toyota, for all its expenditures and technology, is just too new on the learning curve to be any threat for the championship, Hendrick figures.

Stewart, Kenseth and Kahne -- "those are the cars I'm worried about," Hendrick said. "I'll worry about Toyota when the time comes."

Despite the threats, "We're better than we were a year ago," Hendrick said. "We've learned a lot in the off-season. So hopefully we'll be right there.

"And I'm comfortable that the [Johnson-Knaus] team couldn't be in any better position than they are right now to repeat."

At the moment, though, Johnson is playing catch-up, having finished 39th Sunday in the season-opening Daytona 500 after touching off a multi-car accident 27 laps from the finish.

One unknown for all the top teams is the Car of Tomorrow, the revolutionary NASCAR design that will be mandated for 16 of the 36 Cup races this year, as a three-season phase-in begins.

"We'd better not miss a beat" with the COT, said the ever-intense Knaus in his normal staccato speech. "As many times as we race that car this year, we're gonna have to be spot-on with that car when we unload it at Bristol [Tenn., for the first COT race on March 25]."

But Johnson has confidence in his rapid-fire crew chief and the Hendrick organization, whose next Cup win will be its 150th.

"Historically, if you look at Hendrick Motorsports and especially the 48 team, when new rules come along we adjust fast," Johnson said. "We usually figure things out fast. I'm not saying we'll be the best [with the COT], but I am encouraged because I know with this new challenge we'll be on the front side of the learning curve."

The burdens a champion carries throughout the next season -- a deluge of additional media attention, an intensified schedule of sponsor- and NASCAR-related public appearances, and myriad other distractions -- can further complicate any shot at repeating.

"Personality has a lot to do with it," Gordon said. "Jimmie's got a well-balanced personality: He's calm, he's down to earth. And he's surrounded by good people, like I was when I came into the sport.

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