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Chasers Know The Score When Chasing Jimmie

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, November 15 2013

Crew chief Chad Knaus and driver Jimmie Johnson are in a familiar place this weekend. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

There is a segment of auto racing fandom which Jimmie Johnson will never win over. No matter what Johnson says, does or wins, there are fans who will never be able to bring themselves to admit that the five-time champion belongs in the historical company of seven-time champions Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty.

Too bland, too California, too privileged, too many teeth, too much a product of a great team to be regarded as an all-time great wheelman.

But last Sunday afternoon, on lap 164 in the Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Johnson showed one more time that he is every bit the driver as were Earnhardt and Petty.

Running high on the PIR mile, and with Carl Edwards running below, and with Kevin Harvick making an ill-advised attempt to go low to make it three wide, Johnson was bumped by Edwards. Bumped with metal, not with air.

As a result, Johnson ’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevy was pushed out of the safe confines of the racing line and up into no-grippville. For a too-brief moment, it looked like opportunity had shows up at the doors of his playoff challengers.

But a couple of quick saws on the wheel kept the car in off the wall and pointed in a semi-forward direction. Johnson went on to post a top-three finish.

It was a save and a half for Johnson on lap 164.

Edwards was impressed. He made a point of saying that those fans who think that Johnson is anything less than tier-1 wheelman have not been paying attention.

Last Sunday’s save amid the sand was not only impressive, not only pro forma for the five-time champ, it was a winner. Almost assuredly a championship winner.

With Matt Kenseth plagued by a slow car and horrible finish at Phoenix, with Kevin Harvick basically holding serve in the second to last race, it appears Johnson will start this Sunday’s season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with championship No. 6  bagged.

Not mathematically bagged, but psychologically bagged.

You could hear it in the post-PIR voices of Kenseth and Harvick. See it in their faces.

Harvick joked about his chances of making up the 35 points he will need at Homestead to deprive Johnson and the 48 team of the 2013 championship.

“We’re talking about locking him in the Port‑a‑Potty, so that should sum it up,” Harvick said.

Kenseth, 28 points behind Johnson today, opted out of joking about the situation. Post-race at Phoenix – concession-like – he started thanking his team for a great year and finally said, “We basically go there (Homestead) without a shot to win.”

Harvick and Kenseth have been paying attention. They know that Johnson can drive Sprint Cup cars like few others in the history of the sport. They know that he and his team are so good that they make their own luck; that the 48 team just seems to have everything covered all the time.

And Harvick and Kenseth likely know this when it comes to Chases: If you’re lucky, you might get one chance to capitalize on a Johnson piece of bad luck.

For a portion of a split second on lap 164 at PIR last weekend, it looked like the 2013 Chase may be setting up for an exciting finale after all.

But then, was Johnson making all the right corrections inside the car.

Harvick, the winner of four races this year and the winner at PIR, was left to say, “I feel like we’ve probably had the best Chase that we’ve ever had, and you go to Homestead 34 points behind. They’re just good.”

Yep.

When it comes to Jimmie Johnson, don’t confuse your own personal dislikes with empirical reality. The dude’s a wheelman.

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

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, November 15 2013
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