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Harris: History Riding Shotgun in 48

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 24 2010

Jimmie Johnson is having his problems these days. But it might not be a good idea to bet against a fifth straight championship for the No. 48 team. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

When Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya collided Saturday night at Bristol, many in the crowd cheered mightily.

It’s that old “hate the big winner’’ syndrome. The New York Yankees know about that, as do the Dallas Cowboys – although they haven’t won much in recent years.

Johnson, the four-time reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, is a prime target for those stock car fans who would love to see somebody else – anybody else – win a championship.

And Bristol was another example of the kind of bad luck that Johnson has been going through of late. After starting from the pole and leading five times for 175 laps, the crash with Montoya badly damaged Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet and relegated him to a 35th-place finish.

Since winning at New Hampshire in July, Johnson hasn’t finished better than 10th in eight ensuing races. He has wound up 22nd or worse in five of them.

So here we are, heading into the last open weekend of the season for the Cup drivers and with only two races to go until the start of the 10-race Chase for the championship and Johnson is ninth in the standings, a shocking 444 points behind leader Kevin Harvick.

But you Johnson-haters shouldn’t get carried away.

The only driver to have qualified for every Chase field since the format was adopted in 2004, isn’t in much danger of missing the big 12-man show. He’s still 257 points ahead of 13th-place Jamie McMurray.

And, thanks to NASCAR’s decision a couple of years ago to seed the Chase drivers with 10-point bonuses for each of their regular season wins, if the Chase began two weeks from now at Atlanta, Johnson and Denny Hamlin, with five wins apiece, would be tied for first place.

History is also on Johnson’s side.

Other than 2006, when he won his first title, Johnson hasn’t been much better off at this stage of the season.

He was leading the standings that first year, seven points ahead of Matt Kenseth after the Bristol race. But, since then, he has finished Bristol sixth in 2007, 523 points behind teammate Jeff Gordon; fourth in 2008, 418 points behind Kyle Busch, and second in 2009, 220 points behind Tony Stewart.

Of course, they wipe out those big deficits and pretty much start the Chase qualifiers over. So Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 team know there’s no reason to get panicky at this point.

Johnson has learned that you can’t get too caught up in the numbers.

“I’ve been going through my mindset over the last few years and how things have been leaving Michigan (the week before Bristol), going into Richmond (the last regular season race) for that matter,’’ Johnson said prior to the Bristol race.

“Last year, we left Richmond and in my mind I thought we were in big, big trouble for the Chase,’’ he added. “I just didn’t think we had the speed. We ran terrible at Richmond (and) I was frustrated and angry and just mad. What I keep telling myself is that those 10 races in the Chase, it is its own world.’’

Johnson noted that people act and react differently under pressure; certainly including NASCAR drivers.

“And for the last four years we have done a great job in that environment,’’ he said. “I’m not where I want to be. I think we need to be faster on the mile-and-a-half and two-mile tracks, but I also know that we respond well to pressure and that we have good tracks in the Chase for us.’’

It seems the key for Johnson and his team is just being in the Chase.

“We’ve entered the Chase hot, we’ve entered it cold, and either way we’ve found a way to come out on top,’’ JJ said. “It gives us confidence knowing that we have it in us.”

That confidence has translated into18 wins in the 60 Chase races he has run, including 12 of the 40 events in his championship years.

So, we’ll just have to wait for the Chase – or as I like to call it, “Jimmie Time’’ – to see if the Champ can pull it off again. He’s beaten the odds so far.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 24 2010
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