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