Championship is Johnson's to lose
by Pete McCole

November 18, 2006

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Jimmie Johnson

Five years of “so close, yet so far” might finally come to an end on Sunday, as Jimmie Johnson rolls into the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway looking to at last clinch his first NASCAR Nextel Cup title.

As the 10-race Chase For The Nextel Cup comes to a conclusion, Johnson tops the points standings ahead of four other drivers gunning for the title, but it is indeed Johnson who has emerged as the odds-on favorite to win it all.

Johnson comes into the season finale riding a wave of five straight top-two finishes in the last five races – including a win at Martinsville Speedway – that has propelled him to the top of the points standings.

With currently a 63-point margin on second place Matt Kenseth, Johnson needs only to finish 12th or better to clinch his first Nextel Cup title.

And after five straight finishes of second or better, the mind-set is clear for Johnson and his team – just one more finish like that is all they need.

“I don't have any strategy other than go down and finish ahead of (everyone.) It's just simple,” said Johnson. “That's all we've done so far through these last few months and just go down there and do the same thing we've been doing.

“I think our goal is to come down and try to keep this weekend as similar to other weekends in the Chase or other weekends in the season and focus on being the best car in practice, being a contender for the pole and contender for the win. We're going to try really hard to keep that mindset.”

Johnson's biggest threat could come from Kenseth, the driver who Johnson topped to take the lead in the points standings.

After four finishes outside the top-10 in the last five races, Kenseth believes his team will go down fighting.

“I've been all kind of gloom and doom the last four or five weeks the way we've been running,” Kenseth said. “Sometimes the thing kind of works in cycles and I think we're kind of due for a good run.

“We've had some bad ones and we're due here to come strong and you never wish anything bad on Jimmie, but there's a lot of things that can happen, and it's only 60 points or 65 points or something like that. There's always a lot of cars on the lead lap, so I think it's going to come down to the last race. I think it's going to come down to the wire.”

Regardless, it has been a remarkable turnaround for Johnson and his team, who looked to be all but out of contention for the championship after falling to eighth in the series standings following their last-lap crash at Talladega on Oct. 8.

But Johnson and his team mounted a resurgence, bolstered by a runner-up finish behind Kasey Kahne at Lowe’s Motor Speedway a week later and a win the following week at Martinsville. Two more runner-up finishes at Atlanta and Texas put him back at the top of the standings for the final two races.

And it’s all too familiar territory for Johnson.

For the last four seasons, Johnson has come into the season finale with the title in sight, only to come up short. Since his first full season on 2002, Johnson has never finished outside the top five in points – including runner-up finishes in 2003 and 2004 – and has never finished more than 200 points behind the champion.

This time around, it’s Johnson who is the hunted, constantly looking over his shoulder for the four drivers looking to pounce at any opportunity.

“This is my fifth year, fifth time being in a championship situation,” said Johnson. “We've been under pressure and we've been in this situation before and that's made us a better, stronger, and more mature race team.

“The anxiety and butterflies I think always will be there. There's no doubt as the race draws near or even in parts of the race, that my mind and probably all of our minds at some point will start playing games on each driver.”

Kenseth, looking for his second Nextel Cup title, agreed.

“I don't think that you really worry about the other three or four drivers, you know, at the moment,” he said. “If you get in that situation during the race and (Johnson) has a problem and we're close to it, all of a sudden you're going to wonder where the other three guys are at because we are all pretty tight in the points.”

For Kevin Harvick, being 90 points back and in third place gives him the advantage of not having to protect his position, and lay it all on the line for the championship.

“The fact of the matter is, it's a lot easier to race from where we're sitting,” Harvick said. “If you want to stuff it in there and see what happens, I mean, that's probably not what you should do with, you know, a 65 point lead. We're really the underdogs here. So I think you go race as hard as you can, but we're in totally different shoes here. (Johnson) is racing to protect something and we're trying to make something happen.”

Win or lose, it’s been an amazing run for Johnson, from the high of winning the Daytona 500 through the anxious 400 miles of Sunday’s final race, he and his team feel proud of what they have accomplished.

“I think we have earned that this year,” says Johnson. “We've been a threat and been there week after week, been able to win the big races, we've overcome adversity and we've put ourselves in a position to race for a championship. And that's something I'm very proud of, regardless of the outcome and things I can't control

“I'll sleep well Sunday night knowing that we tried as hard as we could and we did all that we could.”

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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