It seems like NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup championship was
custom-made for Jimmie Johnson.
The only driver besides Matt Kenseth to qualify for the 10-race
playoff each year since its inception in 2004, the reigning series
champion has become the master of the big finish.
Asked what ignites his killer instinct about halfway through the
Chase each year, Johnson grinned and shrugged.
"That is the most-asked question and I don't have an answer for
you, I'm sorry,'' he said.
"I think tracks have something to do with it. There are good
tracks that we see in the spring and fall, and that has a lot to do
with it. ... We just show up and we do the same job every week that
we always do, but there are certain tracks that we are better at.''
It seems NASCAR visits all of them in the final weeks of the Chase.
The first year of the Chase, he gave everyone a sample of what was to come.
Johnson got off to a slow start and found himself a daunting 247
points behind leader Kurt Busch after four races. He and his No. 48
Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team then found life and put on a
dramatic charge, winning four of the last six races to finish eight
points short of Busch in the closest championship in NASCAR's top series.
In 2005, there were no dramatics as Tony Stewart dominated on
the way to his second career title. But Johnson did win twice in
the Chase and had five other top-10 finishes. He started the last
race second to Stewart, just 52 points behind, but crashed and
finished 40th at Homestead-Miami Speedway, winding up fifth, 127
points back in the championship.
Last year was more of the same.
Johnson again got off to a slow start and found himself 156
points behind Jeff Burton after the first four Chase events. He was
the class of the field the rest of the way, with one win, four
second-place finishes and a sixth, beating Kenseth for the title by 56 points.
That brings us to this year, when Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon
has had one of the best campaigns of his illustrious career.
Under the old format, with all the races counting toward the
championship, Gordon would be leading Johnson by more than 400
points with two races remaining. But, with everything starting over
for the 12 drivers in the Chase -- seeded for the first time this
year by "regular season" wins -- Johnson actually had a 20-point
lead over his friend and mentor going into the Chase opener at New Hampshire.
Four-time champion Gordon didn't blink. In the first eight 2007
playoff races, he had seven finishes of seventh or better and a
worst of 11th. And, heading into this Sunday's race at Phoenix, Gordon trails Johnson by just 30 points.
That's because Johnson turned on the jets again after falling 68
points behind Gordon with a 14th-place finish at Charlotte in the
fifth race of the Chase. Since then, he has won three straight
times and stolen the momentum from Gordon, who had won the two previous races.
"I think that we've been on quite a roll, and going to Victory
Lane does something for the crew and the shop that you don't get
any other way,'' Johnson said. "When you go to Victory Lane,
there's just a buzz that goes through all of Hendrick Motorsports and, really, on the 48 team.
"So we have momentum going our direction right now, but it's
only 30 points. And, if you look at the last two weeks, I've been
able to make up roughly 60 points. And Jeff hasn't had bad races
the last two events. He's had strong he finishes. So I can finish
10th (at Phoenix) and he can win and I'm back in second.''
Gordon, listed along with team owner Rick Hendrick as co-owner
of Johnson's car, was one of the first people to show up in Victory
Lane last Sunday at Texas to congratulate Johnson.
"Thirty (points) isn't much,'' Gordon said after the race.
"The biggest thing right now is that we're just getting beat and
those guys are winning races. We've got to go put some pressure
back on them and outperform them.''
Considering Johnson's history in the Chase, that won't be easy.