NASCAR

Speed Reading: Johnson's second Chase chance

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Ryan McGee

 
   
 
Poor Jimmie Johnson.

Over the last four seasons, no one has won more races (22), picked up more top 10's (104) or spent more time atop the point standings (49 weeks) than the pride of El Cajon, Calif. But when September rolls around, J.J. has experienced Chicago Cubs-type heartbreak. In 2003, he lost the title to Matt Kenseth by 90 points. One year later, he fell eight points shy of the Cup. Last year, he once again dominated the regular season, only to fade to a fifth-place points finish.

This year was going to be different. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus worked all winter to recapture the momentum of 2005, then pushed their team through the summer of '06, winning the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard and preaching the merits of keeping the hurt turned up, not gliding into The Chase. After Indy, they lost some steam, then lost the points lead, but continued to convince us all that getting back into gear for the final 10 races would be easy to accomplish.

Which brings us to last week's race at New Hampshire. Only 88 laps into a 300-lap event, Johnson was in the wall, the front left corner of his Lowe's Chevy mangled and being stripped away. Knaus and the crew did a masterful modification job on the Monte Carlo, but the best they could salvage was a 39th-place finish and a skimpy 46 points.

And so the painfully familiar whispers started all over.

Here they go again.

Can't close the deal.

There's always next year.

But fear not, Johnson fans. This deal may not be over yet. The good news — history says that the boys from Lowe's can still recover. The bad news — they can't screw up again.

A look at the first two years of The Chase and the two men who won the title tells us that when it comes to winning the Nextel Cup, one bad day is OK. But two bad days is like putting a bullet in the tire.

In 2004, Kurt Busch started The Chase with a win at New Hampshire and followed that victory with five straight finishes of sixth or better. Race number seven was held at Atlanta, and a blown engine on lap 51 sent Busch behind the wall with a 42nd-place finish, but three top 10's to close out the year was enough to outlast Johnson for the Cup.

Busch's lone DNF wasn't enough to keep him from the title. Why? Because the men behind him had two or more. Johnson had two DNF's over the final 10 races while third-place finisher Jeff Gordon was alive at the end of each event. But a 19th-place run at Talladega and a 34th-place run at Atlanta did in Gordon.

2004 Chase results
Pos. Driver Top 5's 15th-29th 30th or worse
1. Kurt Busch 6 0 1
2. Jimmie Johnson 5 0 2
3. Jeff Gordon 5 1 1
4. Mark Martin 3 3 0
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 4 0 3

In 2005, no one seemed to want to step up and grab the Cup, but Tony Stewart did the best job of staying out of the dreaded 30th or worse column. Stewart didn't exactly dominate the final 10 races, though he did pick up three second-place finishes. Smoke managed to outlast the competition by racking up fewer bad finishes than anyone else. The only anomaly in our pattern was Carl Edwards, who finished 19th at New Hampshire and 26th at Martinsville, but two late wins nearly reeled in the top spot.

2005 Chase results
Pos. Driver Top 5's 15th-29th 30th or worse
1. Tony Stewart 5 3 0
2. Greg Biffle 5 2 1
3. Carl Edwards 5 2 0
4. Mark Martin 5 0 2
5. Jimmie Johnson 4 1 2

So, the point of all this is this — Jimmie, you still have a chance to redeem yourself. Your horrible day at New Hampshire did not ruin your title chances. But if you finish 30th or worse... heck, even 15th worse at Dover this Sunday, history says you can go on and start working on 2007. Just be ready to hear those whispers all winter long.


Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images.

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