Saturday, October 23, 2004
Johnson's renewed hope
By Mike Massaro
It'll be hard to top the comeback of the Boston Red Sox but Jimmie Johnson's going to give it a shot.
If there's one thing we learned as sports fans this week it's to never give up. If there's a mathematical chance, then there's a legitimate chance. In stunning fashion the Red Sox proved that no matter how insurmountable a challenge may seem -- grit, determination and heart can lead to a championship.
"I think that Boston's mentality was, 'We're in a hole. Let's work as hard as we can and if it's meant to be then it's meant to be,'" said an inspired Johnson. "I think that's the same philosophy that my race team has."
What a difference a week makes. An overheating problem at Talladega, in 'Chase' race three, triggered signs of frustration for the 48 team. Chad Knaus, perhaps the most media friendly crew chief in the garage, snapped at a group of reporters as they hoarded near the car waiting for Johnson's comments. The following week in Kansas Johnson crashed, finishing 32nd and forcing the team to an emotional low point.
"I think after the Kansas race that was really the reality of the 'Chase' slipping away and not having, in my eyes, a realistic chance," admits Johnson. "That was a real big reality we had to face after Kansas. So going into Charlotte that reality was still floating around."
That reality may have been a wake up call. Heading into the UAW-GM Quality 500, a distant 247 points behind leader Kurt Busch, Johnson rekindled his Charlotte magic and notched his second Lowes Motor Speedway victory this season and third in his last four visits.
"It's just a relief after having two almost three bad months to get that monkey off our backs and get that race-winning feeling back," said Johnson, who from late April through August had not been lower than second in the standings.
The win buoyed team spirits and gained them a spot in the standings. They're now eightth, 227 points behind. The uphill climb is still very steep but Johnson is keeping the faith.
"We just have to make the most of the season from here on out," Johnson said. "If those guys make some mistakes obviously we can be back in it."
Sunday's race in Martinsville provides potential. It could be the perfect setting for Johnson, a driver with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
"Martinsville is really the last 'wild card' race in my eyes," adds Johnson, who led 104 laps in the spring and hasn't finished worse than fourth in his last two visits to the Virginia half-mile. "The top three guys, top four guys can have a bad day and allow me to catch up and have a shot at this thing so it's going to be an interesting race."
Over the last 10 short track events (Martinsville, 4/03 -- Richmond, 9/04) Johnson ranks third with an average finish of just over 10th. Only Dale Earhnardt Jr. (5.4) and Jeff Gordon (9.4) have been better.
Gordon is undeniably the statistical leader among 'Chase' contenders at Martinsville. In 23 races he's won five times and has an average finish of just over eighth. If the Hendrick Motorsport's open book policy continues, Johnson may gain from Gordon's knowledge. However it seems natural to wonder, while these two teammates battle for the same title, whether they'll continue to freely exchange data and advice.
"Even if it came down to us I think we both have the approach that we'd rather be battling teammates than anyone else," says Johnson.
One thing's clear though, they're not giving away points on the racetrack. Late in last week's event Johnson appeared to have an opportunity to give Gordon a shot at leading a lap and gaining five bonus points but that never happened.
"If I did let him by I know he wouldn't let me have it back," clarified Johnson, claiming it was never even discussed. "I don't think Jeff was on the radio asking to lead a lap. He knows you get down to that final 10, final 15 that it's every man for himself."
Alone Johnson cannot prevail in this championship chase. To gain traction in the standings he needs to keep winning and get a little help.
"I'm not wishing any bad luck on anyone but we're going to Martinsville prepared to be up front and have a shot at winning this thing and if some people have some bad luck we're hoping to capitalize on it," asserts Johnson.
Let's face it though, whenever a driver says he's not wishing bad luck on anyone, you know he is.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.