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Remember Texas? Jimmie Sure Does

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 22 2009
Graphic proof that bad luck can and does strike Jimmie Johnson on a race track. (RacinToday file photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Graphic proof that bad luck can and does strike Jimmie Johnson on a race track. (RacinToday file photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Homestead, Fla. – Surprisingly, Jimmie Johnson came to Homestead-Miami Speedway with a case of nerves.

It seems that just about everybody has conceded an unprecedented fourth-straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championship to the Hendrick Motorsports driver as he heads into Sunday’s season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

And he’s certainly been through this before.

But Johnson has repeatedly said that the events in Texas two weeks ago would not let go of his mind.

“I’ve thought about that race and what happened there every time I lay down at night and it pops into my head a few times each day,’’ Johnson said earlier this week.

What happened at Texas, for those who might not remember, is Johnson lost more than half of a seemingly bulletproof 183-point lead over series runner-up Mark Martin when he qualified poorly and got caught up in a crash while running in heavy traffic on the third lap of the race.

“Our conservative qualifying effort (at Texas) is what made the difference,” Johnson said. “If we had qualified better, the way we should have, we wouldn’t have been in that situation and maybe we would have avoided what happened to us.”

Johnson made a powerful recovery last week at Phoenix, overpowering the field for his seventh win of the season and fourth in the first nine races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. But even that couldn’t completely erase those memories of what happened on the 1.5-mile Texas oval .

“Texas just proved that anything can happen and you can’t take anything for granted,’’ Johnson said. “You just have to keep digging and not let up for a minute.’’

Martin, the people’s choice who is now 108 points behind Johnson and seems relegated to his fifth second-place Cup finish, would like to believe that, too.

“We’ll go out there on Sunday and race hard and see what happens,’’ said Martin, who qualified fourth on the grid. “This is a competition and all kinds of things can happen.’’

But the mild-mannered Martin has done little to get into Johnson’s head this week, and whatever doubts Johnson might have brought with him to South Florida wafted away on Friday when he completed the important first step of his championship wrap-up by winning the pole for Sunday’s race.

“There is some relief,’’ Johnson said after qualifying. “At the same time, I’m trying to keep it simple and say, `Yup, today’s behind us. Sleep well tonight but treat tomorrow like a whole new day; first day at the track and start all over again.’ ‘’

Still, the Homestead pole was just typical of what Johnson has been able to do throughout his career; raise his game at the key moments.

As people close to the sport know, Johnson doesn’t seem to get the credit he deserves for his accomplishments.

“I personally don’t think he gets the accolades he should as a driver and a competitor,’’ said former Cup champion Dale Jarrett, now an analyst for ABC/ESPN.

“I think the perception is because he drives for the best organization, has the best cars, has the best crew chief in the business, and obviously along with that goes the best engines, that why shouldn’t he do this? But that’s not the case,’’ Jarrett added.

“We’ve seen other drivers with a lot of talent be put in that position and they couldn’t get the job done, not even for a year, much less for four years running.  This is his eighth year and he’s never finished outside the top five – EVER.

“Who has come into the sport and done that? Nobody!’’ Jarrett said, shaking his head.

Sunday’s race offers Johnson yet another opportunity to prove his greatness.

And, now that that case of nerves has been set aside, it’s very likely he’ll get it done. Maybe this time people will finally give Johnson the credit he deserves.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 22 2009
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