Johnson finished ninth at Fontana last February, in the Auto Club 500 at the California track, but in October, when the series returned for the fourth Chase race, he passed Gordon with six laps to go to win. Think that was just happenstance? No, for Johnson and Knaus, the first Fontana race was merely a warmup. Other teams must follow this model of Chase-testing every week.
2. Start the Chase fast.
There's been talk in the garage of needing to "Jimmie-proof" the Chase, just as the pooh-bahs at Augusta National lengthened the golf course in 2002 to try to Tiger-proof the Masters. Many drivers will tell you that the Chase venues need to be changed because Johnson runs well at virtually all of the ones on the current schedule. But which tracks could be added? Bristol Motor Speedway, where Johnson's career average finish is 15.9, or the road course at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., where it's 17.4? Adding those tracks certainly might level the playing field, but NASCAR officials insist there are no plans to alter the schedule.
But there is one track in the Chase at which Johnson is relatively vulnerable: New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which hosts the first race in the playoffs. Johnson's career average finish there is 9.5, including six Chase races. "You've got to get a lead on [Johnson and his team] early to make them feel the pressure," says one driver, who requested anonymity. "You've got to punch them in the mouth, so to speak, right away at New Hampshire. If you can do that, you might force Jimmie to be more aggressive than usual, and that's when mistakes happen."
3. Keep Johnson in your sights at the intermediate-length tracks in the Chase.
On tracks that measure between one and two miles in length, Johnson's career average finish in the Chase is an astounding 9.2. Five of the 10 Chase races take place at these venues, which is why it sometimes seems as if Johnson drew up the playoff schedule himself. It's not likely that a driver will pick up more points on these tracks next year, but to win the title you must stay close to him. How can a team accomplish this? Work aggressively this off-season and during the regular season to improve team performance at these venues, which means building new cars that are equipped with the latest technology and are designed specifically for these Chase tracks. This year, for instance, Juan Pablo Montoya of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing drove five brand-new cars in the Chase. He had three top five finishes (plus two more in older cars) after having just two in the 26-race regular season.
4. Beat him at Talladega.
'Dega is the one race during the Chase that requires more luck than skill. Because of the restrictor plates that are placed on the carburetors to reduce speed, the cars sweep around the 2.66-mile tri-oval in large, tightly bunched packs. One slight bobble can trigger a multicar wreck, an all-too-common occurrence at Talladega. Johnson has managed to slip through big pileups for three straight years in the Chase—he's the first to admit that he's been blessed with more than a little luck—and it's one of the main reasons he made history on Sunday night. Consider: He gained 62 points on Edwards at Talladega in 2008 when Edwards wrecked in a large group (Johnson ended up beating Edwards by 69 points), and this year he gained 66 points on Martin, who got flipped in a 13-car wreck on the penultimate lap on Nov. 1.
"Talladega makes me more nervous than any other race in the Chase," Johnson says. "We've had some good fortune there recently. Hopefully that will continue."
Because Johnson is so good on the other tracks, it's imperative to pick up points on him here.