Johnson close to shedding also-ran tag

Maybe Jimmie Johnson should give Phil Mickelson a call. Mickelson has heard all the same stuff.

"We've been through all the disappointment of not winning the championship. And we've had all the different things that really try relationships in our sport."
-- Jimmie Johnson

For years, Mickelson was the golfer who couldn't close the deal. It ended for Mickelson in 2004 when he won the Masters, finally finishing on top in a major tournament.

Of course, he went back to his old ways at the U.S. Open this year, but hey, at least he broke the long string of disappointments. He's the guy who could tell Johnson that good things do happen.

Johnson's never been this close to the Nextel Cup crown. With two races remaining, he's 17 points ahead of Matt Kenseth, the man who beat him for the 2003 championship.

If Johnson fails to get it done now, he knows what comparison will come. He'll make "The List."

There's Hall of Fame quarterbacks Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Warren Moon.

Don't forget Karl Malone and John Stockton in the NBA.

And of course, Mark Martin in NASCAR.

Johnson is only 31, but he wants his name off that list. You know the list we mean: great athletes who never won a championship ring.

Johnson doesn't want the rep of the driver who always falls short in the end when a title is within reach.

Johnson finished one spot short of the title in two of the last three seasons. He won four of the last six races in 2004 and finished second in the season finale at Homestead-Miami, but lost the title to Kurt Busch by just eight points.

Last season, he led the standings for 17 of the first 28 races and went into the final race in the No. 2 spot to Tony Stewart. But a blown tire put Johnson in the wall and ended his chances.

"We've been through all the disappointment of not winning the championship," Johnson said. "And we've had all the different things that really try relationships in our sport."

Maybe those things made the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet team stronger. Johnson was No. 1 for 22 of the first 24 races this year, but now finds himself in uncharted territory. For the first time in his Cup career, Johnson is the championship leader down the stretch.

Now he's the driver in front. He's the one the other contenders have to catch. Kenseth has the best shot, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. (78 points back) and rookie Denny Hamlin (80) still have a reasonable shot at catching Johnson.

No one expected Johnson to reach the top spot when he was 165 points back in eighth place four races ago. He made a miraculous recovery with a victory and three second-place finishes in the last month.

The title still could slip away from him, but Johnson has learned two things this year that make him a better driver: patience and toughness.

The rap on Johnson in previous seasons was his tendency to race too hard at times, especially on the restrictor-plate tracks. But Johnson was a more calculating driver this year with victories in the Daytona 500 and the Aaron's 499 at Talladega.

The big difference is his ability not to let distractions and setbacks stop him. Johnson is thicker-skinned now.

He lost crew chief Chad Knaus for the first four races when Knaus was caught cheating (or stretching the rules, if you prefer) at Daytona. Johnson never blinked, winning two of those races and finishing second and sixth in the other two.

He shrugged off rumors that Knaus might leave Hendrick Motorsports and just kept racing up front before Knaus signed a new deal to stay.

Trouble came with a 39th-place finish when the Chase began at New Hampshire, but Johnson kept his composure and worked his way back to the top.

"We've stuck by each other's sides and found a way through it," Johnson said. "Believe me, there were times when it was tough."

Johnson credits team owner Rick Hendrick with keeping everyone upbeat when the championships didn't come. Before this season started, Hendrick told Johnson not to worry about titles. Just drive the car the way he's capable of driving.

"Rick is so good at that," Johnson said. "He's such a great people person. That's one of his biggest assets. Through the discussions he's had with me and Chad, we were really able to focus on the right things and take a lot of pressure off."

The pressure's on now, but Johnson isn't showing it. He seems at peace with himself and confident in his team.

In the past, Johnson almost tried to force his way to the championship, hoping he could push hard enough to make it happen.

That approach didn't work. Johnson today is not the same guy from a year ago or two years ago. He believes in himself.

That might be enough to keep him off "The List."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.