Johnson not worthy of No. 1 ranking ... yet

August, 28, 2009
Jimmie Johnson No. 1?

My colleague Ryan McGee from ESPN The Magazine seems to think so. He put the three-time defending Sprint Cup champion atop his weekly rankings last week. He did this after Johnson's team blew the win at Bristol Motor Speedway with a late lug-nut issue.

His comments read, "If the champ hadn't run out of gas at Michigan [again], he would have taken over this spot one week ago."

So, Johnson's team blows consecutive wins and moves to No. 1? Really? It would be easy to argue just the opposite, that Johnson's team is making too many mistakes to be worthy of No. 1, maybe too many to win a fourth straight championship.

Look at the facts. He's run out of gas three times -- twice at Michigan and once at Pocono -- during the final laps with a chance to win. He was headed for the victory at Bristol until the mistake on pit road.

So instead of having seven wins and being a lock for the top seed once the Chase standings are reshuffled, he has only three.

Sorry, but that's not No. 1 or championship material.

"Yeah, not having mistakes is definitely something you need to do to win the championship," Johnson admitted on his weekly conference call. "I didn't know what went on at Bristol until I was back in the bus and [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] stopped by as I was changing and getting ready to leave.

"I just kept my mouth shut on the radio, and I'm glad I didn't act like a jerk or anything, because what really happened was a freak accident." He's right about that. During a tire change, one of the lug nuts got loose and became trapped between the drive plate and stud. When the new wheel was put on, the lug nut wouldn't allow the wheel to draw all the way to the drive plate and sit flat on the wheel.

Freaky. But again, it was a mistake, just like coming up short on fuel mileage.

So instead of four additional wins, Johnson had finishes of 22nd, 13th, 33rd and eighth. Again, those aren't championship numbers.

"That's something that we just have to be prepared for, and hopefully over the off weekend we can all just get mentally prepared for what's going to go on in the Chase," Johnson said. "There's going to be challenging points whether it's your fault or not. "And it's how you respond and come back from those things that's going to make the champion."

Exactly. And although Johnson shouldn't be No. 1 now, he has to remain the favorite to win the title. Knaus won't take fuel-mileage gambles in the Chase, and despite the lug-nut problem, Johnson rallied to finish eighth after restarting around 21st.

You also have to consider that Johnson already has led 1,235 laps this season, 960 more than points leader Tony Stewart and 343 more than his closest competitor, Kyle Busch. Heck, it's more than he had in all but three of his seven previous seasons and only 54 shy of his total in 2007, when he won his second title.

Take away the mistakes, and he would be breathing down the back of Stewart instead of 220 behind. He might even be ahead.

"I really feel this is the strongest year we've had from a technical car standpoint," Johnson said. "We have had speed in the cars since the first race. We haven't had a big drop over a long period of time.

"Yeah, you have some good races and bad races, but it's consistently the strongest performance we've had. Unfortunately, my mistakes and team mistakes and circumstances, fuel, freak deals like lug nuts like last weekend, we haven't closed on as many opportunities as we've had."

That doesn't make him No. 1 in Week 24. It also doesn't mean he won't be No. 1 after Week 36.

"Last year, we didn't have the car, but we had the luck and didn't make many mistakes and finally got the car up to speed," Johnson said. "And this year, it's been kind of the opposite.

"So as long as we pull it together here in two weeks and put down 10 good ones, we'll be fine."

And then he can move to No. 1.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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