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Johnson never the favorite, but always the champ

September 16, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Johnson never the favorite, but always the champ
JOLIET, Ill. -- Five-time winner enters sixth in seedings, but he's the largest figure in the Chase

The blocky, abstract figures incorporated into the grandstand seating pattern at Chicagoland Speedway are meant to evoke the skyscrapers of the big city, the John Hancock and Willis towers represented in plastic and paint. Those edifices are an hour away, beyond the cornfields and industrial parks and western suburbs. But even if they were right next door, nothing would loom larger over this 1.5-mile race track this weekend than the shadow of five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

NASCAR's playoff opens at a different venue this season, but one thing remains the same -- this is Johnson's time of year. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has built his legacy on winning when it matters most, as evidenced by his astounding record in Chase events. His 40 victories and 8.1 average finish in postseason races have been the bedrock of a five-year run of success unparalleled in the sport's long history, and are enough to establish him among the favorites this year despite a regular season that in some ways doesn't necessarily meet his usual high standards.

"Nobody's tried locking the dumb [butt] in a Port-A-John yet. You know? I think that would work. And I say that in the kindest way possible."

--KYLE BUSCH

Johnson begins the Chase this year not atop the standings, but seeded sixth. He's won just once this year, at Talladega in the spring, and before that you have to go all the way back to Dover last fall to find the last time the No. 48 car visited Victory Lane. If Johnson doesn't win Sunday at Chicagoland -- one of only five tracks where he's never won -- he'll have gone a full year with only a single race victory, an astonishingly lean period for someone with his credentials and reputation. The intimidation factor always looms large with Johnson, particularly this time of year, and everyone awaits his shift into Chase mode. But even he understands that his aura of invincibility doesn't burn quite as brightly as it has before.

"I want to be that guy," said Johnson, who turns 36 Saturday. "I wanted to lead the points coming into the postseason. We worked hard to put ourselves in a position for that, and with what went on at Richmond, it just didn't happen. But I want that target on my team and on my back at all times. There is an advantage you can gain by dominating, and by setting the mark and by having everybody chase you. That's good momentum. I wish we had that on our side. We don't right now. We're running well, we're running in the top five. But we've got to go out in the Chase and kind of set a statement and get back in our ways."

And yet, this is all an image as familiar as that of sailboats on Lake Michigan. Somehow, Johnson has been able to pull off that rare feat of being perpetual champion and perpetual underdog, at least to this point in the season. Rare is the campaign where he stands head and shoulders above everyone else entering the Chase. In 2007, Jeff Gordon dominated the regular season. In 2008, Kyle Busch opened the playoff as the driver to beat. In 2009, it was Tony Stewart. In 2006 Johnson started second, five points behind Matt Kenseth, but was quickly buried in a 156-point hole he was able to climb out of thanks to one of the most impressive five-race stretches ever.

Only last season, when he started second behind Denny Hamlin, did the specter of inevitability present itself -- and even that had to survive a penultimate race at Phoenix where Johnson somehow pulled championship No. 5 out of the fire using guile and pit strategy. He's never the favorite. But at the end, he's always the champion.

"I feel bad for Jimmie. Every year he comes into this deal, at least that I can recall, as the previous winner, and he doesn't get labeled the first favorite, which is kind of strange," Brad Keselowski said. "You would think the guy that's won it the last few years would be labeled as the favorite. But we all look at different things as drivers to label favorite, and right now it's hard to not label Jeff [Gordon] as the favorite. He's done a lot over the last few weeks, won races and been in position to win many more. So that's very impressive. His cars have a lot of speed and there's a lot of potential out of that camp. Doesn't mean they'll realize it, but there is certainly a lot of potential there. They have the highest potential, and I think a lot of people would label him as the favorite, his team as the favorite accordingly."

Johnson will admit there are other drivers like Gordon and top seed Kyle Busch who have enjoyed better regular seasons and have more momentum going in. But from his perspective the Chase is its own season, and it favors those who minimize mechanical trouble and excel under pressure -- two things his No. 48 team has done repeatedly over the past five years. "He's the best we've had in the sport the last five years, and he's shown it repeatedly when it comes down to the Chase," Busch said. "We've just not been good enough to beat him."

Nobody has, even though last year's single Chase race victory tied his lowest output in the playoff since his championship reign began. And now we have the possibility of another perfect Johnson storm, another championship campaign that begins with driver No. 48 lying in the weeds, not feeling the pressure, but subtly applying it.

"Sure, I have a streak to try to keep alive," Johnson said, "but I think there was a lot more pressure on me to win my first [championship] than there was to win the second, third, fourth, fifth. So I don't think it's me."

His closest pursuer from last season would agree. "Sure, he has pressure in the sense to go for six straight, but to him I think it's just another trophy in his cabinet," said Hamlin, who came as close as anyone to ending Johnson's reign, leading by 15 points entering last season's finale before falling 29 short. "For him, I don't see how there can be any pressure. I think any championship from here on out is just a bonus for him."

Perhaps that's why, regardless of what he's done over the season's first 26 races, Johnson thrives at this time of year -- with so many championships in hand, he's playing with house money while his competitors cave to the enormous pressure that comes with trying to unseat him. That, or he's come to such a peace with the idea that his title reign will inevitably one day end that he glides through these playoffs like jets on approach to O'Hare.

"I certainly have goals, and would like to win more championships and continue the streak and try to leave my mark in the history books," Johnson said. "But if it doesn't happen, and when it doesn't happen -- it's just a matter of time before we don't win a championship, that's just the way it is -- as long as I know that my team and myself did all we could, I'll be fine. We get beat, we get beat. That happens on a weekly basis. Sometimes you show up at the track and you hand out the [butt] kicking, and sometimes you're taking the [butt] kicking. That's just the way it goes."

Failing that, Busch may have another plan. "Nobody's tried locking the dumb [butt] in a Port-A-John yet," he said. "You know? I think that would work. And I say that in the kindest way possible."