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A Bounce-Back Championship Would Be A Biggie

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 6 2012

Jimmie Johnson's victory in Texas could turn out to be one of his most important. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Who knows which moment or race or Chase will end up defining Jimmie Johnson’s driving career: The guy looks capable of having one of the longest periods of peak performance in all of sports history.

But a candidate for Johnson’s defining moment has emerged this fall. His run to and through the 2012 Chase has been a cut above those of his championship-winning playoffs. And Sunday’s finish at Texas Motor Speedway could stand as its denouement.

Of course, Johnson needs to go on to win this year’s championship, but in the wake of Sunday’s event in Fort Worth, the strong belief here is that he will.

Many fans – and some competitors – found the team’s half-decade of dominance less than stimulating. Some went so far as calling it bad for the sport. Some have yapped about the supposedly boring personality of Johnson and calculating coldness of crew chief Chad Knaus.

And truth be told, one almost has to go back to old notes to come up with big, huge, remarkable moments from the 2006-2010 Chase-winning streak. Hate to say it but in perhaps the most memorable event of the run, Johnson was only the supporting actor: That event being the Kansas race in the fall of 2008 when Carl Edwards made his incredible banzai-pass-smack-into-the-wall of Johnson for the lead in the final corner of the final lap; the pass that Edwards thought might work because it worked in video games.

No, the beauty of what Johnson and Knaus and their team did during their five-year championship run was not about wow-factor moments or high stakes gambles. It was the way that they noodled out the intricacies and strategies of racing for championships after NASCAR suddenly moved to a playoff format.

Successful and historic? Unarguably.

Sexy? Not.

Then came 2012.

The season started with the racing world wondering if the 48 team’s success had crested. (The team and driver had, after all, went one entire year without winning a single championship. Yes, they did win three races and did make the Chase. But, once in the playoffs, they faded deeply into the background. While the 2011 Chase easily became the most exciting ever, Johnson and Knaus were not part of it.)

The season rolled into late summer with the teams of Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth piling up points. People busied themselves wondering if this would be Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s big year, if Denny Hamlin would rebound from the disappointment of the 2010 meltdown. Fans pondered the disappearance of Edwards and Tony Stewart, who wound up tied in points after the final race of 2011.

And about everybody nodded in agreeing unison that this guy Brad Keselowski was the newest, freshest big thing in NASCAR.

People were still nodding that when the Chase started and were throwing their necks out of joint nodding after Keselowski, with his extremely appetizing blend of big skill and old school grit/new school hipness won the playoff-opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

Then came Kansas.

Johnson, who had not won a race since the Brickyard in July and who started the Hollywood Casino 400 on the mysterious new surface at Kansas and had his points lead ripped away from him by race-winner Keselowski at Dover three weeks earlier, looked to be in trouble.

His hopes for a bounce-back championship appeared to be downright doomed when he wrecked hard on lap 135 of the Kansas race. But he limped his car back to the pits and his team, with Knaus orchestrating from the pit box, patched the car with a couple acres of Bearbond. Johnson got back into the race and finished an unlikely ninth.

Then came Martinsville.

Johnson won that race. And Keselowski lost it when his decision to not pit for tires late in the race backfired. Johnson did pit. He went on to win the race and left NASCAR’s oldest track as the Cup series’ new points leader.

Then came Texas.

At the 1.5-mile quad-oval, Johnson earned the pole, the best pit stall, the victory and maximum points.

Perhaps more importantly and, definitely more impressively, he showed that he can win with his fists as well as with his and Knaus’ brain. Johnson not only outdrove Keselowski on a couple of critical restarts, but he out-banged the Penske Dodge driver when the race was reduced to fender bending on the final laps.

And Keselowski – who, again, lost on a pit-stop gamble as he opted to go for track position over rubber late in the race – suddenly looked like a prime candidate to join Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Edwards, Mark Martin and Hamlin as answers to the trivia question of: Who finished second to Jimmie Johnson during Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship campaigns?

Johnson’s lead is only seven points as the Chase heads to Phoenix for the penultimate race of the season, and that is just one bad pit stop away from second place. There could be a bad set of tires waiting for the 48 team at Phoenix this week. Or a sharp piece of debris on the track at Homestead next week.

And 2012 could go down as the season in which Keselowski broke the spell and the Johnson-Knaus magic soured and then curdled.

But right now, 2012 smells extremely sweet for Johnson, Knaus and history.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 6 2012
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