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Johnson Considered The Man By His Fellow Chase Drivers

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 18 2009
Tony Stewart answered questions from reporters under a post of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City on Thursday. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Tony Stewart answered questions from reporters under a post of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City on Thursday. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

The legend of Jimmie Johnson, three-time and reigning NASCAR champion, is looming XXX Large over the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

That was evident during Chase Media Day in New York City, where four of 12 drivers eligible for the championship served up plenty of props to Johnson during a video teleconference at the Hard Rock Café in Times Square.

Johnson, the only driver to have qualified for all six editions of the 10-race Chase format, has won three consecutive championships. NASCAR icon Cale Yarborough was the first to post such a trifecta from 1975-78, during the Winston Cup Era. A fourth championship would tie Johnson with Hendrick Motorsports teammate/mentor Jeff Gordon. But a fourth consecutive championship would put Johnson in a league of his own, a fact not lost upon his Chase-eligible peers.

“I think Jimmie Johnson has laid the blueprint out of what it takes to win a championship over the last three years. You got to be in the top-five pretty regular to have a shot at it,” said two-time series champion Tony Stewart.

“Jimmie has obviously been the gold standard the past three years with close to an average of fifth to win the championship,” said first-time Chaser Brian Vickers, who was Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate from 2003 to 2006.

“We’re just trying to stop him,” said Carl Edwards, seeded ninth this season but last year’s title runnerup to Johnson by 69 points. “What he did last season was unreal. I think oftentimes it appears that his accomplishments get overlooked or overshadowed by something. I don’t know what it is. But I think we’re going to look back and point to Jimmie Johnson and say no matter what the season (outcome), he’s had a spectacular roll.”

The 12 drivers qualifying for the Chase had their points totals re-set to 5,000 following Race No. 26 at Richmond International Raceway last Saturday night. Ten bonus points were then awarded for each victory during the “regular season,” placing four-time winner Mark Martin atop the standings with 5,040 points. Stewart is seeded second and Johnson stands third, both with 5,030 points based upon their three victories, headed into New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Round 1 of the ‘09 Chase will unfold during Sunday’s Sylvania 300, scheduled for 300 laps/317.4 miles around the 1.058-mile oval in Loudon, N.H. Johnson’s personal history in the 50 previous Chase races borders on the ridiculous. Johnson has scored top-five finishes in over half of those Chase events. He leads in every noteworthy category including wins (14), top-fives (26), top-10s (36), average finish (8.7) and laps-led (2,204). The same is true for NASCAR’s Loop Data compiled since 2005, a span of 40 Chase races: Driver Rating (108.8), Average Running Position (10.1), Laps in the Top 15 percentage (82.4%) and Fastest Laps Run percentage (10.5%).

Even though he lost the top seed to Martin, Johnson’s statistics were the strongest during the regular season. He led the series in Driver Rating (110.3), Average Running Position (8.2), Fastest Laps Run (738), Laps-Led (1,252) and Laps in the Top 15 percentage (84.2%).

That is how J.J. has won three consecutive Cup championships. “These three championships have meant the world to me,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Impala SS. “Right now, I’m trying to get to Loudon and get off to a good start. I see four or five teams that have shown a lot of speed over the last few races. I think we’ve got our best chance for a really exciting Chase. We’re really running well. I feel really good at the races in the Chase. It is challenging and hard, but there’s something that clicks for me that says, ’This is what got us here.’^”

Martin, a four-time title runnerup, indicated he has developed a true appreciation for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus during his first season as their Hendrick teammate.

“Jimmie is probably underrated for what he does and his commitment,” said Martin, driver of the No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevrolet. “If someone does get a fifth-place average finish for these 10 races, they will win. I can’t see that happening with where the competition is right now this year. I know one thing for sure, that’s phenomenal when you factor in all the variables you can’t control – flat tires, accidents, all kinds of other situations with pit stops and everything else. That’s phenomenal.”

Vickers, driver of the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota Camry, has retained a mental notebook on Johnson. “One thing I’ve always seen in Jimmie…I do think he’s very underrated,” said Vickers, who is seeded eighth. “The problem with that, there’s so many talented drivers with unique personalities in our sport. Our sport is full of very stiff competition, very talented drivers, that all have their personalities that the media love to grab ahold of. I think that’s sometimes why what he’s accomplished is overlooked.

“He’s very good behind the wheel. He can drive a car loose, tight, fast, make whatever work. But he’s very consistent, he’s very calm. I think that’s one thing that’s led him to these championships. He has good cars. He has really fast cars. He never seems to get rattled. His cage is never rattled. Rarely does he make mistakes. No matter how bad things get, they always seem to be there at the end of the race.

“Obviously, it’s won him a lot of championships. We forget he’s won three in a row. That’s incredible. He’s going for his fourth. I hope that he doesn’t get that fourth because I’m sure these guys feel the same way.  If he was to accomplish that this year and win four in a row, that’s truly unprecedented. I don’t think people realize sometimes how big of a feat that is in the competitiveness of the sport we have.”

Stewart, Cup champion in 2002 and 2005, certainly knows what it takes to grind out a championship.

“The odds of winning one championship are a certain number,” said Stewart, team-owner/driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy. “To win two in a row, that number increases. To win three in a row, it increases by leaps and bounds again. It is a huge feat in this era of NASCAR racing to have that kind of dominance and win three championships in a row, especially under a format like this where, you know, there’s less room for error now than ever when it comes to winning a championship. So it’s pretty remarkable what they’ve been able to do.”

Edwards’ runnerup finish in last year’s Chase was the product of a series-high nine victories, including three in the postseason. He also logged eight top-10 finishes during the final 10-race stretch to no avail.

“I feel like last year’s experience in the Chase was really valuable to me, being able to stay within reach of Jimmie until the last part, until the final race, the last lap,” said Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Aflac Ford Fusion fielded by Roush Fenway Racing. “I think that experience and going through those emotions, you know, battling through some adversity, through a few bad races that we had, I think that’s good.  I think it helped me. I hope our team is performing well on the racetrack, our cars are fast enough, that we can apply all that stuff and make some use out of it.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 18 2009
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