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Harris: It’s Chase Time And That Means Jimmie Time

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 16 2009
Is Jimmie Johnson headed toward a fourth straight Sprint Cup championship?  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Is Jimmie Johnson headed toward a fourth straight Sprint Cup championship? (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Correspondent

OK gang, it’s “Jimmie Time!’’

The so-called regular season in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series is over and, with the start of the 10-race Chase for the championship set for Sunday in New England, history tells us Jimmie Johnson will turn on the afterburners in his quest of a record fourth straight title.

It’s  like the stock car postseason was designed for Johnson, who seems to thrive on this type of pressure.

In the 50 Chase races run since NASCAR adopted the format in 2004, Johnson has won 16 times. He has finished worse than second in the points only once in that stretch  – a fifth-place performance in 2005. Obviously, an off year for Gentleman Jimmie.

With Matt Kenseth having his bubble burst last weekend in Richmond, falling out of the 12-man Chase field, Johnson is now the only driver to make the postseason lineup every year since NASCAR chairman Brian France invented the stock car playoffs.

Nobody should be surprised, though. Besides having outstanding Hendrick Motorsports equipment, Johnson is just plain good.

At 33 years of age, he is in his ninth full season in the Cup series.

Johnson has never finished worse than fifth in the standings, whatever the format.  And,  besides those three championships, he has two runner-up finishes.  He also has accumulated 43 victories.

Actually his numbers are similar to teammate and friend Jeff Gordon, who won 50 races and three titles in his first eight full seasons in Cup.

But Gordon came to NASCAR with some outstanding credentials as short track driver and expectations of stardom. Johnson was a virtual unknown before he began his Cup career.

In 2002, while racing in what was then the Busch Series, Johnson ‘s team lost its sponsor and the driver went to Jeff Gordon for advice. A friendship grew out of that meeting and Gordon wound up recommending  Johnson to his team owner, Rick Hendrick.

Hendrick has certainly never regretted listening to Gordon.

As a rookie, the unheralded Johnson won three races, became the first – and only – first-year driver to lead the points and finished fifth in the standings.

“Jimmie is kind of sneaky good,’’ Gordon said of his pal several years ago. “He just goes out and does his job, keeps working at it and, suddenly, there he is leading the race.’’

It’s true that Johnson doesn’t  generally get people riled up like current “Bad Boy’’ Kyle Busch. And his fans aren’t anywhere near as passionate or visible as those following Dale Earnhardt Jr. But he is building a legacy that anyone in NASCAR would be happy to have.

And everyone has come to know exactly what to expect in the final 10 races of the season.

He doesn’t always get off to a fast start in the Chase, but he’s usually the guy to beat before it’s over. This year isn’t likely to be any different.

– Mike Harris is the former auto racing beat writer for the Associated Press and a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 16 2009
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