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Johnson’s foes lurking, need Texas repeat

13 November 2009

The sight of Jimmie Johnson's smashed and steaming car sitting near the inside wall at Texas Motor Speedway last Sunday should have been raw meat to the eyes of the dwindling few who still have shots at winning this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

It should have plucked their predatory gene and caused them to jump like wild boars on Bambi. But about all that Johnson's rare moment of misfortune did was leave the three or four Chase drivers closest behind him hoping that it happens again. Preferably twice in the next two races.

When, after the Texas race, Mark Martin said, “There's two races left, you never know what's going to happen”, he undoubtedly meant just that: Johnson needs to run into trouble and preferably in this weekend's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, to keep the door open for others.

Good luck with the bad-luck thing at PIR for Martin, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart — the four guys who are within 200 points of Johnson — because on paper, the desert mile is a Jimmie Zone.

Said Johnson this week, “I would say that looking at the schedule, the best track remaining for us would be PIR.”

Ouch.

Johnson's numbers there have to be viewed as disheartening for those who think the scene of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus sitting at the lead table at the postseason banquet is getting old.

Johnson has three victories at Phoenix. That is not only best among the twelve Chase drivers, it is best among all active drivers. Heck, it's best among all drivers period at the track, which began hosting Cup races in 1988.

The numbers only get more grim from there for the Chasers: Johnson's average finish is 5.4 in his twelve starts, and his 506 laps led is third best among active drivers.

Here is the worst of the horrible news for the anti-Johnson and pro-exciting-conclusion-to-the-Chase folks: the #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy has been running at the end of every race at Phoenix.

That's right, no DNFs.

“Going back to Phoenix is exciting for us,” Johnson said. “It's one of the tracks ... that I feel we can get a victory at and hopefully make some more cool things take place in the points.”

The four drivers who have any chance of catching Johnson would rather have the cool things happen to them.

Probably the good news on that front is that all four are good at Phoenix. All have won races there, and all have average finishing positions of 12.5 or better.

And all were saying the right things despite their respective point deficits — 73 for Martin, 112 for Gordon, 171 for Busch and 178 for Stewart — this week.

Like Martin, who said, “I don't know why everybody tries to cap this thing off and doesn't just wait and watch. There are still two races to go and still things that can happen.”

And Gordon, who said, “A lot can happen in these final two races. There are hundreds of moments that you have as a team every single weekend that maybe don't materialize, or that don't get seen by the public or even the media. But we see it. There are close calls all the time, and it can happen at any time. I get through every race and think, 'Whew, we survived this moment or that moment.' ”

But there, contained in Gordon's statement, it is again: Not so subtle admission that it is going to take at least one more round of car disfigurement on Johnson's part to put real drama back into the Chase.

Probably two.

by Jim Pedley/Sporting News


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