Despite poor Chase start, history shows Johnson still the driver to beat
by Mike Neff
For the last four years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, the mantra has been the same at the start of the Chase: Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have another title in him this season. Or crew chief Chad Knaus is behind the times. Or this will be the closest Chase ever. Or, quite simply, Johnson’s luck will run out. Yet somehow in each of the last four seasons, Johnson and Knaus have mastered the last 10 races better than the rest of the Chase field.
So before you stick a fork in the five-time defending champion — who happens to be in a 29-point hole after two Chase events — you might want to remember that this isn’t the first time the No. 48 team has faced playoff adversity. Taking a little trip down memory lane just may help freshen the memories of the doubters who are certain that this is the year Johnson’s dynasty crumbles.
In 2006, the first year of his five-year run, the Chase started at Loudon and Johnson not only stumbled out of the gate, he fell straight on his face. Johnson came home 39th, the bottom finisher of the title contenders and ahead of only Jeff Green, Morgan Shepherd, Ted Christopher and Bobby Labonte for the afternoon. Things didn’t get any better over the next three races, as Johnson finished 13th, 14th and 24th — the last of which came courtesy of a wreck at Talladega that included teammate Brian Vickers and future teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
However, from that point until Homestead, Johnson and his team were nearly perfect. They didn’t finish worse than second over the next five races and only finished ninth at Homestead because that was all they had to do to clinch the title, which they did by 56 points.
The following season was the year where even those fans who don’t like Johnson had to admit they never really felt like he was going to lose it. He finished outside of the top 10 twice during the final 10 races, both of which were 14th-place runs. Six of the final 10 races he finished in the top three, and four of those were consecutive wins from Martinsville through Phoenix. Even though his Chase performance was one of dominance that season, he was third in the standings after the first two races. That said, there’s no question that ’07 was the most dominant of Johnson’s five Chase wins.
Another strong year came in 2008, as Johnson cruised through the Chase with only two finishes outside the top 10, but they were both 15th-place showings. He began the Chase with second- and fifth-place finishes, but still sat third after two events. By the time the checkers fell at Homestead, though, Johnson had three wins and six top 5s in the playoffs and beat Carl Edwards by 69 points for his third championship.
Edwards was supposed to lay it on Johnson in 2009, but faltered to an 11th-place points finish. Instead, it was Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Mark Martin, that went toe-to-toe with the mighty 48. Johnson started the Chase off in a better position than the previous years, with a fourth and a first in the first two races. Still, Johnson ranked second to Martin through two.
However, Johnson beat Martin into submission from there, scoring single-digit finishes in all but one of the playoff races to win his fourth title by a comfortable 141 points.
Last season presented another foe for Johnson to outlast — check that, it brought two foes, in Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Johnson started the Chase with another bad run at Loudon, coming home 25th. He followed that with a win in Dover, but still in a 35-point hole to Hamlin. As is usually the case, Johnson and Knaus went on a run from there, averaging a 4.5-place finish over the final eight races to turn the tables on a choking Hamlin, and winning title No. 5 by 39 points.
The Chase for the Cup in 2011 has not opened up like a house on fire for Johnson, who is staring at his worst points position in since the beginning of the dynasty. And for all the talk of a rift between Johnson and Knaus, it could just as easily be the case that the two make a run like a scalded dog the rest of the Chase and everyone forgets about the talk of discord.
The only way we’ll find out is to run the rest of the races. Because while it may not appear so now, as long as the 48 team is in the playoffs it’s the team to beat.