Sunday, November 22, 2009
Updated: November 23, 3:42 PM ET
Can anyone stop the 48?
By Terry Blount
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The 5-spot. Going 5-for-5. The Ultimate High Five.
Pick a catchphrase. Call it what you will. The incredible quest begins in only 83 days.
When the green flag drops for the 2010 Daytona 500, Jimmie Johnson will start his new goal of winning five consecutive Sprint Cup championships.
People already are asking, "Can he do it?"
It's the wrong question. What you should ask is this: "Can anyone keep Johnson from doing it?"
Making history as NASCAR's first driver to win four consecutive championships, and doing it without much of a fight from his rivals, makes it clear that Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team are capable of continuing this amazing streak.
"Obviously, the roll they're on, they're clicking [Cup titles] off here very quickly," teammate Jeff Gordon said at Homestead. "So anything's possible. I don't really see anything slowing down those guys. I think they're very capable of doing it again next year."
Most NASCAR followers thought Gordon would have a fifth championship by now, but it hasn't happened.
His "Drive for Five" has lasted eight years after winning his fourth championship in 2001, although he would have two more Cup titles in the old points system before the Chase playoff started.
But Gordon wasn't going for five in a row. He won four championships in his first nine seasons as a Cup driver. He was only 30 years old. A fifth Cup title in the No. 24 Chevy, along with a run at Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. at seven championships, seemed likely.
The 2009 season was Johnson's eighth year in Cup. He's 34. His chances at five straight look good. So do his chances at catching Petty and Earnhardt.
"It is a goal," Johnson said Sunday. "I'm not sure how realistic it is. I don't even know if we'll win another championship. There's no way to know the challenges it will bring."
Gordon knows how things can change.
"In this sport, nobody is immune to being humbled," Gordon said. "Next year, that's still just five. Seven's a big number. I remember a lot of people telling me, 'Oh, man, seven's in reach.' But that's tough to get.
"The only difference now is I don't compare the championships those guys won or the ones I won to the new championship. It's totally different."
And Gordon sees Johnson as the master of the Chase.
"It reminds [me] of the 24 team when everything came together and everything clicked," Gordon said. "If they continue to keep the 10 races in the Chase that are in there now, I don't know if there's anybody better than the 48 team at those 10 races and those 10 tracks."
Winning five in a row, winning seven titles or becoming the first man to win eight, crew chief Chad Knaus believes it's all on the table.
"We're going to give it everything we've got and see where it shakes out," Knaus said. "We've been able to battle for the championship since 2002.
"I would like to say that we could be in that position, but you don't know. The competition level is so high. It's so difficult to predetermine what's going to happen. I know Jimmie has got the talent. I know we've got the talent here at Hendrick Motorsports to make that happen."
So who can stop JJ? Teammate Mark Martin is the obvious first choice, even though he'll turn 51 in January. He fell 141 points short of stopping Johnson this year.
Martin will start his second season at Hendrick Motorsports, which could mean improvement from his "rookie" year in the organization.
"My race team deserves great credit for what we've done," Martin said at Homestead. "I feel really good about things. I'm in the best frame of mind that I have been since I've been an adult."
Denny Hamlin, the winner Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, guaranteed he will challenge Johnson next season. He finished ahead of Johnson in five of 10 Chase races and failed to finish three of the five other events.
"We're gonna be there, I promise you," Hamlin said. "We are one of the few that can run with the 48 every week."
Kurt Busch is another man who looks like a serious championship contender next season. Can he stop Johnson?
"I may not be a big-enough fish to chew on that bait," Busch said at Homestead. "Really, I feel like we've done an excellent job advancing our program at Penske Racing. I want to compete with Hendrick.
"I want to be there running door-to-door with those guys because Roger Penske knows I'm upset when I don't finish ahead of those guys or be in the mix for a top-5 finish each week. That's where we can be better next year if we're going to make a run at it."
Carl Edwards expected to make a run at Johnson in 2009 after winning nine races in 2008, finishing second in the standings and winning three of the last four events.
But Edwards went winless in 2009 and never seriously challenged Johnson.
"It is interesting how [racing well] for us has been cyclical," Edwards said Friday. "For the 48 it hasn't been that way. I don't know if I can convey how amazing that is to me. We have to figure out what we can do to keep our performance on a high level.
"I wouldn't have the respect for what the 48 team has done if I wasn't going through this and understanding how tough it is. I don't know where exactly their advantage lies. I don't know the answer, but that's the team you want to emulate and figure out what they're doing."
Jeff Burton doesn't know whether Johnson can win No. 5 next year, but he knows Johnson has many good years ahead of him.
"He's not done," Burton said. "It's hard to race against a guy and say he's the best. But considering what Jimmie's done, how in the world do you not put him on the list?"
|Jimmie Johnson is congratulated by wife Chandra after winning his fourth straight Cup crown.|
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.