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Jimmie Johnson fell 139 points behind after the first race of the Chase, but he has been here before. In 2004, his furious rally came up just short. This year, his deficit is smaller. "It's go time," he says.
By BRANT JAMES
Published September 24, 2006
Jimmie Johnson has had to do the stiff upper lip, soldier-on thing before. Way too many times. There was the runnerup finish to Matt Kenseth in 2003, the runnerup finish to Kurt Busch by a minuscule eight points in 2004, even though one of Busch's wheels went rolling down the track at Homestead.
But those moments came in the last race of the season, preceding a whole winter of recovery and reflection. Watching his hopes for a first Nextel Cup title sputter with a bad plug wire and crash into the wall at New Hampshire Sept. 17 (thanks to a bump from Sterling Marlin) is harder to accept.
So Johnson will do what he does so well heading to today's second Chase race at Dover International Speedway: the stiff upper lip, soldier-on thing and keep telling himself nine weeks is plenty of time to erase the 139-point, nine-position lead Kevin Harvick holds.
"We don't have that luxury to sit around and be cautious," Johnson said on a national teleconference. "It's go time. We need to score points, a lot of points, every race."
A 22-time winner since 2002 (the series leader in that span), Johnson obviously does well at many tracks, and Dover is a good starting point for a regroup. He has three wins, including this race a year ago, four top fives and seven top 10s in nine starts at Dover. Take away crashes in the 2003 and 2004 spring races and his average finish on the 1-mile concrete oval is 4.3.
"The highlights and tracks that I look at and feel good about, one would be Dover," he said. "Talladega, great restrictor plate program. I think that's a strong race for us. Lowe's Motor Speedway's a great race for us.
"I think in the whole scheme of things, in the Chase, there are a lot of good tracks for the 48 team. Martinsville is a great place for me. I feel like there's a lot of good chances for me to score points."
Johnson has a win and eight top 10s in nine starts at Martinsville; five wins (in the past seven races) and an average finish of 6.2 at Charlotte; won at Talladega this spring; has won at Atlanta; five top 10s in six starts at Texas; three top 10s in four starts at Kansas; and four top 10s in six starts at Phoenix.
Johnson's team has a penchant for late- season charges. In 2004, he won four times in a five-week stretch, all the while dealing with the death of 10 team employees or friends in a Hendrick Motorsports plane crash the day of the Martinsville race, which Johnson won to start the run. Johnson began the stretch 247 points behind Busch with six races left.
"I definitely think we have it in us," Johnson said. "If you look at the situation we're in, we're 139 points down. We were 247 down in '04, six races remaining, only lost by eight points. My guys have done the math. We need to outscore the (No.) 29 (car) by 15.4 points from this point on to end up in the points lead."
A driver can make up 156 points on another driver in one race providing they both start.
With the temptation to race conservatively gone, Johnson doesn't have to bother much about strategy. He just has to go hard, he said, and hope the two-year history of the Chase holds true again, that almost every driver will have at least one devastating points finish.
Or a monstrous distraction. Richard Childress Racing's Harvick and Jeff Burton, who is fifth in points, found themselves refuting claims of cheating this weekend. Speed TV reported last weekend that RCR's wheels had been rigged with "bleeder valves" to lower tire pressure and improve performance. On Friday, the Charlotte Observer reported that a wrongful termination suit filed by a former RCR engine shop employee claimed the team made illegal modifications to circumvent restrictor plate guidelines during Speedweeks at Daytona in February.
Harvick and Burton vociferously denied the allegations. True or not, both spent time dealing with something other than navigating Dover's unforgiving confines.
"There's no telling who's going to have problems, who's going to have a bad race, who's going to have part failures," Johnson said. "It's so early. Nine of these things left. One down. I don't know what my strategy is. I don't know what to expect."