One to Go
Heading into this week's season finale, Jimmie Johnson has built a commanding lead in his quest for his first points title
JIMMIE JOHNSON strode through the garage at Phoenix International Raceway last Friday afternoon, passing a mob of screaming, autograph-seeking fans as if they were invisible. Johnson had just completed his two qualifying laps for the Checker Auto Parts 500, and now he had work to do. He climbed a ladder to the top of the blue-and-yellow number 48 Lowe's Chevrolet hauler parked in the garage, then stood alone and watched the other drivers buzz around the one-mile flat track during qualifying.
For more than an hour Johnson—the only driver to take advantage of this bird's-eye perspective—looked as if he were in a trance, his eyes locked onto each car as it circled round and round. He was analyzing the line that each qualifier took through the turns and studying where he hit the brakes and exactly where he got on the gas. No detail has been too small for Johnson during the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup, and this is a major reason that Johnson is poised to win his first championship.
After starting 29th at Phoenix, Johnson blew to the front of the field on Lap 133, then stayed in the lead pack for the rest of the afternoon before finishing a comfortable second behind winner Kevin Harvick. Johnson's Friday studies clearly paid off on Sunday, and he now holds a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth in the standings with one race left. How big an upset would it be if the 31-year-old Johnson, who has finished in the top two in four straight races, failed to take the title this Sunday in Homestead, Fla.? In the past 20 years only two drivers have entered the final race of the season in the points lead and not won the championship—Darrell Waltrip in 1979 and Davey Allison in '92. And Johnson enjoys a far heftier cushion than either Waltrip (two points) or Allison (30) had.
"I feel like I'm focusing on the right things each week when I come to the track," said Johnson after the race. "I now have the experience to know that I should do things like seek out my teammates for advice. It's helped all year, and I can't wait for Homestead. These next six days are going to be long."
Sunday certainly dragged on for Kenseth, the 2003 champion, who entered the race 17 points behind Johnson. Kenseth held the points lead just two weeks ago, but his car handled poorly at Texas on Nov. 5, and he finished 12th to fall behind Johnson in the standings. Kenseth's handling woes continued at Phoenix, where he came in 13th. Now, even if Kenseth wins at Homestead, all Johnson has to do to secure the title is finish 12th or better.
"It's all over," said Robbie Reiser, Kenseth's crew chief, late on Sunday evening. "If you know what's wrong with us, please tell me, because I've got no idea. It's just all over."
Well, not yet, not officially anyway. But something extraordinary will have to happen to Johnson at Homestead—say, a blown engine—for him not to be hoisting the Cup come Sunday night.
More NASCAR analysis from Lars Anderson at SI.com/racing.