Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are going to have to stumble at the NASCAR Cup series season finale this weekend for any other team to stop the No. 48 Hendrick juggernaut. After a slow start to the 2006 Chase for the Championship, Johnson managed...
Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are going to have to stumble at the NASCAR Cup series season finale this weekend for any other team to stop the No. 48 Hendrick juggernaut.
After a slow start to the 2006 Chase for the Championship, Johnson managed to capitalize on other teams failures and place himself in the position to win his first championship.
"I never felt we were out of it," Johnson said. "I never expected 11 to have as much difficulty and let a lot of us back in it. I never conceded and I just said, let's go all out, we have nothing to lose, let's just try to finish up by winning races, just like the 20 has been doing, it's about winning races and that's been our philosophy last couple of months."
Johnson enters Miami with a 63 point advantage over the rest of the field. Only the top-five drivers are still mathematically viable to win the Nextel Cup in the event that Team Johnson circles the drain this weekend and lets the title slip through their fingers.
"I look at what we've done and how we got prepared for the Chase, we did everything we needed to but unfortunately got off to a slow start," Johnson explained. "I think we're performing well at the races where we had some bad luck and had had some wrecks. Dover, a solid day, Talladega, can Kansas.
"We have not needed a strategy because we have not been performing well. Sometimes I wish Chad would have had more of a strategy. Last week, we took a green flag, I didn't think it was going to work out and it did and Martinsville, we worked our way back. We've relied on a solid race car and let me do my job in the car and it's been so strong and not have to out trick anybody and not do anything fancy."
Second place Matt Kenseth all but threw in the towel post race at Phoenix. With the crew chief shuffle at Roush Racing amongst other team misgivings, Kenseth didn't seem like he'd have the chutzpah to pounce if Johnson has some kind of unpredictable mechanical snafu or gets caught in a wreck.
"Only if he (Johnson) blows up, and then we're running so bad right now that I don't feel like we can beat anybody," said Kenseth of his chances to win the title. "He's gonna have to have problems and we're gonna have to have a lot of good luck to get in there. We can't do it on performance. We can't run 25th on performance right now."
Kevin Harvick, however, who sits third - has nothing but a tide of momentum on his side. He trails Johnson by 90 points, but a maximum of 156 points can be gained in Sunday's race. Harvick clinched the Busch series title weeks ago and is coming off a race win at Phoenix.
You can be sure that if Johnson stumbles, Harvick will be there to cash in on the opportunity but it's not something he is agonizing over, "I wish we were a little closer than we are in the points, but we did everything we could do today. However it falls, it falls. We have had a good year."
Hamlin ties Harvick by also lagging behind by 90 points, "I am proud of this whole team. We are going to go to Homestead and celebrate a good season."
Fifth place Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would need a virtual miracle or a mighty big wreck involving the aforementioned four drivers to see his championship hopes emerge. There will probably be a lot of sleepless nights in the No. 8 house thinking about what could have been if not for Brian Vickers and that now infamous 8/48 car slide through the grass at Talladega.
"We're a lot further behind in the points than what we wanted to be leaving this place, but we'll get back home and get ready to try to win Homestead," Earnhardt commented at the close of the Phoenix event.
The good news for Earnhardt is that no driver sits prettier than him for a fantastic, breakout season in 2007. Johnson may head into Daytona the reigning champ but Earnhardt will be the driver to beat next year.
As for six through ten who are just racing around for a smack more cash in their check and to see who gets to get up on stage sooner than the other -- better luck next year. But I have a feeling we won't be seeing a lot of those faces in the Chase in 2007.