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Just drive, Jimmie

Jimmie Johnson has been close before, only to be foiled . His team has checked e very lug nut, but today it's time to ...

By BRANT JAMES
Published November 19, 2006


HOMESTEAD

Jimmie Johnson knows better. He won't even suggest that his fate will be in his hands when he slides behind the wheel of the No. 48 Chevrolet today at Homestead-Miami Speedway. For all the dazzling things that he can do with a race car, the things that have given him a 63-point lead in the Nextel Cup standings with one race left, he knows that every part in that car is an opportunity for misfortune. Five-dollar parts break. Five-million-dollar championship bonus checks are lost.

The less heralded and less talented run into one another, leaving debris to cut tires of drivers trying to race into history or oil slicks to send them into the wall. Those are the "disasters that are huntin' to happen," five-time runnerup and one-time champion Bobby Allison said.

"I know I am going to do a great job driving the car," Johnson said, "but I can't control somebody else's bad luck or misfortune."

Last year, his team couldn't control the tire he cut and eventually lost on Lap 126 at Homestead, dropping him from ninth to 40th after he spun out. He fell from second to fifth in the standings. Or in 2004 when Kurt Busch's wheel came off near pit road, allowing the No. 97 Ford to duck in, save track position and beat Johnson by a record-low eight points.

It is with that realization and a long history of crumbled hopes that Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team have diligently attempted to control every other variable. Extra personnel arrived at the track especially early last week, and crew chief Chad Knaus, though claiming he is more relaxed and refreshed than for any season-ender, hasn't let his binder of "secrets" out of his grip.

"The thing we've got to do is just make certain that we've got a car that'll stay underneath him for that period of time," Knaus said. "And if something happens, something happens. If something happens and we don't win, it's not because we crumbled or that anything like that happened. It'll be because of a parts failure or an accident or something like that."

Winning a series-best 23 times but finishing runnerup twice in points since 2002 has instilled in Johnson's team confidence and a morbid fascination with mayhem. And the fortitude to overcome it. When Johnson felt a tire going flat early in the Brickyard 400, his team regrouped. And won.

"I remember Chad on the radio settling him," said jackman Chris Anderson, who was born in Brooksville and raised in Tampa. "The crew, we were like, 'Whatever, just fix it.' "

The often-repeated team mantra this weekend has been staying true to what has put the team in this position.

Jeff Andrews has confidence the JRH490 will have plenty in it to give Johnson the 400.5 miles he needs. HMS has had just three major engine failures since it settled on a package midway through the season at Indianapolis. Johnson didn't finish in the top five after that until his current streak of five top twos. But the engines have lasted.

Every motor built at HMS is named JRH for the father of team owner Rick Hendrick - Joseph Riddick Hendrick - and numbered. The 490th built in the five-time championship-winning shop has never been raced and logged just a few hundred miles during an October test at Homestead.

This one should be fine, said Andrews, head of the team's engine shop, but he knows things happen. A $5, 2-inch-long, 1/8-inch-thick valve inside Jeff Gordon's fuel pump snapped with less than 30 laps left in October at Kansas, relegating him to a 39th-place finish and dropping him from six to 120 points off the lead.

"I think you have to be careful because you can overdo this by being too cautious, getting out of your routine and what has gotten you this point," Andrews said. "We feel like you should keep doing what has gotten you to this point in the Chase."

Anderson is one of several team members whose job during the week is to check with a jewelers' scrutiny every lug nut, screw them down on a bolt to test the threads, tap out ones that catch with a sharp tool and discard those that could foul a pit stop and a championship.

"It's a tedious job, but even on the wheels we check the stud holes and the sizing," said Anderson, who won three titles on Gordon's pit crew. "It's the little stuff that needs to be checked so we don't get bitten on it later on."

So Johnson can only have faith, and drive. Faith that his blitz from 156 points down six weeks ago won't be wasted. That victories at the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 will have been enough. And repeat: "We're sure we'll have everything buttoned up tight."

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or 727 893-8804.