HE blew by Juan Pablo Montoya, then veered off-road to pass Boris Said. With his wife, Chandra, sitting by his side and holding on for dear life, reigning Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson mashed the gas pedal and shot across the grass, cruising over the hills and through the hollows of the Riverwalk Golf Club in San Diego until he reached the 4th hole, where he parked his cart next to Bobby Labonte's. For Johnson, golf had been a welcome distraction from the stress-filled run to his first Cup title last season, and here he was back on the course late this summer, striding confidently to the middle of the fairway, pitching wedge in hand.
"Watch this," Johnson said to Labonte, who along with several other NASCAR drivers was playing in Johnson's inaugural charity tournament. Ninety yards from the pin, Johnson swung and ... skulled the ball over the green. After digging a second rock out of his pocket, Johnson took another hack—and this time knocked it wide to the right, missing the putting surface again. "Well, Jimmie," said Labonte, the 2000 Cup champ, grinning, "you've always been consistent."
Yes, he has, especially in the Cup series. Since his rookie season in 2002, Johnson has amassed more wins (29) and more top 10 finishes (126) than any other driver on the circuit. So here's how he expects the 2007 Chase for the Cup, which begins on Sunday with the Sylvania 300 in Loudon, N.H., to play out. "The field in the Chase this year is going to be deeper than it's ever been," Johnson says. "There are seven or eight guys who have a legitimate chance to win it all. The one who can be in the top five week in and week out is going to wind up being the champion. We think we should be able to run up front in every race, so I really believe we can win it again."
The last driver to win back-to-back Cup championships was Jeff Gordon in 1997 and '98, and no driver in the Chase era, which began in 2004, has come close to repeating. After winning the title in '04, Kurt Busch wound up 10th the following season; Tony Stewart hoisted the Cup at the end of '05, but he didn't even qualify for the Chase in '06.
"What makes it so hard to repeat is that championship teams are reluctant to change because of the success they had," Busch says. "But in this series the technology changes so quickly and the edge you have over the competition disappears. You've got to be willing to adapt and mix things up, even if you are the defending champ. This is a hard thing to do in any sport."
Last season Stewart's bid to repeat was undone chiefly by what Cup drivers dread most: horrific luck. He lost valuable points at Michigan and New Hampshire when he got caught in accidents that weren't his fault. Then, during a practice run before the final race of the regular season, at Richmond, Stewart made an uncharacteristic mistake and crashed into the wall. Forced to use a backup car the next night, he never found the right setup, finished 18th and missed the Chase by 17 points.
Stewart's disaster in Richmond exemplifies the heavy price a driver sometimes pays for the slightest lapse in concentration. "One tiny mental mistake made in a split second over the four hours of the race can cost you the championship," says Jack Stark, a sports psychologist who has worked with several NASCAR teams, including Hendrick Motorsports. "NASCAR is the most mentally draining sport there is. In football and basketball you can take a play off here and there, but not in NASCAR.
"The season is also 40 weeks long," adds Stark, "and by the end of the year a lot of drivers are burned out. But Jimmie Johnson is different. He's proven that he performs best when his back is against the wall, and he always finds a way to turn it on in the Chase. He's as mentally strong as anyone in the sport."
LAST SEPTEMBER, at the urging of Chandra, Johnson discovered an escape from the pressures of racing: golf. Nearly every Monday afternoon during the 10-week Chase, Johnson, a beginner, played one of the Charlotte-area courses. For five hours he would lose himself in the pines, trying to forget about all things NASCAR. "I can always tell when the Chase is about to start because of that awful feeling I get in the pit of my stomach," Johnson says. "But playing golf definitely relaxed me. It really improved my state of mind."
Says Chandra, of her husband's weekly game, "I'm going to make sure he does the same thing this year."