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ONE RACE remains in the 2007 Chase for the Nextel Cup, but let's just, well, cut to the chase and hand the trophy to Jimmie Johnson. O.K., so technically Johnson hasn't clinched the championship just yet, but after rolling to his fourth straight win (and 10th overall) on Sunday in the Checker Auto Parts 400 at Phoenix International Raceway, Johnson holds a cushy 86-point lead over Jeff Gordon as the circuit heads to Homestead, Fla., for the season finale on Sunday. Johnson's sizable advantage means that he has only to finish 18th or better in Florida to take the Cup. This isn't what you would describe as a difficult task for Johnson. He has finished 19th or worse only once in his last 15 starts, and right now Johnson, the reigning champ and the first driver to win four races in a row since Gordon accomplished the feat in 1998, possesses what NASCAR teams prize above all else: momentum.
"Teams will spend an unbelievable amount of money on tools and parts to make their cars as fast as possible," says Kevin Buskirk, the head of research and development at Dale Earnhardt Inc., "but every single one of those teams would throw all of those tools and parts away to be able to buy momentum. It has always been that important in NASCAR, and right now Jimmie and [his crew chief] Chad Knaus have a ton of it."
Gordon is the only driver with even a statistical chance of catching Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, and for that to happen, Johnson's number 48 Chevy would have to sustain some sort of damage during this Sunday's Ford 400. Homestead-Miami Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval with 18- to 20-degree progressive banking, is one of the most aerodynamically sensitive tracks on the Cup schedule. A slight ding in the front fender or a tiny hole in the grill could cause a car to dramatically lose its grip on the track and—in a worst-case scenario—crash. To avoid pitfalls, Johnson will go into the motor sports equivalent of the grind-it-out-between-the-tackles, clock-killing offense in football: He'll take as few chances as possible while cautiously trying to improve his track position.
"Jimmie and Jeff will have equally fast cars at Homestead, and they'll likely be the two quickest guys on the track," says Darian Grubb, the crew chief for Casey Mears, another Hendrick driver. "It's so hard to make up ground when two cars perform evenly, so you'd have to say that Jimmie is in a very good position right now."
Yes, he is, and Gordon knows it. Over the closing laps in Phoenix on Sunday, Gordon was uncharacteristically overheated on the radio. While piloting a poor-handling car, he threatened rookie Aric Almirola for not getting out of his way, and he then cursed Kyle Busch, a teammate, when Busch raced him wheel-to-wheel for several laps. It was a day of abject frustration for Gordon, the four-time champ, who under NASCAR's old point system would have wrapped up the title two weeks ago in Texas. He finished a not-good-enough 10th.
"I thought it was our year; I really did," said Gordon solemnly after he parked his banged-up race car in the garage. "We've gotten beat, bottom line. They deserve to be champions."
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tuesday and Friday.