News & Media

Johnson facing a comeback tougher than 2006?

October 21, 2011, David Caraviello,

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Jimmie Johnson woke up early this week bruised and sore after withstanding a massive impact late in last Saturday night's Sprint Cup event at Charlotte. His No. 48 car was toted back across the highway to Hendrick Motorsports with its front end crumpled into an angry snout. But at the halfway point of this Chase for the championship, nothing was in worse shape than Johnson's hopes for a sixth consecutive crown.

Indeed, Johnson's reign seems to hang by a thread after a Charlotte crash that knocked him back five positions in the standings, and left him 35 points behind leader Carl Edwards coming to Talladega Superspeedway. According to NASCAR, that equates to about a 145-point deficit under the previous points system -- one point less than the gap Johnson made up to win his first title in 2006, an epic comeback so spectacular that it felt at the time like a once-in-a-career kind of occurrence.

Jimmie Johnson

Stats at remaining tracks
TrackStartsWinsAvg. Fin.

* Sound Off: Johnson on crash, jinx

Now, he needs to do it again -- despite a schedule, a car, and a competitive environment that all seem to be aligned against him.

"It is possible, and I'm expecting we need to do that as a race team," Johnson said Friday at NASCAR's biggest race track. "Fortune can come and go for any of the drivers at any of the tracks. There's a lot of focus on this weekend's race, but Martinsville has its things, then we go to Phoenix at some point, and we're all not sure what to expect in Phoenix, so things will develop over the next five races. But myself and this team are looking at it that we need to be on fire at these next five to give ourselves a chance to win this thing."

Johnson was certainly sizzling during the final stages of that 2006 Chase, embarking on an unconscious run of five consecutive finishes of second or better to secure his first title. Following Talladega, where he finished 24th after being inadvertently spun by former teammate Brian Vickers, he finished second at Charlotte to cut the deficit to 146. Then he won at Martinsville to pull within 41. Second place at Atlanta got him within 26. Another runner-up finish at Texas gave him the lead with two races still remaining. He added another second-place finish at Phoenix for good measure, and at Homestead went on to win the championship by 56 over Matt Kenseth.

It was a staggering run, an average finish of 1.8 in a five-race span that's as good as Johnson has ever been, and offered a preview of the half-decade of dominance to come. Replicating that kind of streak will be a chore, not just because of the inherent difficulty involved, but because so much has changed from five years ago -- from a schedule that's been rearranged and allows Johnson one fewer race after Talladega, to a more simplified points system that has many other drivers in the championship mix, to a car that makes hitting the setup just that much harder. These days, is such a comeback even realistic?

"It's realistic if you have a Roush car. Their cars are really fast," answered Brad Keselowski. "But in reality, with how finicky the [current chassis] is, and how hard it is to get the setup right on it, probably not."

Still, there are plenty in the garage who have learned to underestimate Johnson at their own peril. In 2006, Johnson showed hints of being able to unleash such a devastating run by winning two of the first three races -- despite a suspension to crew chief Chad Knaus -- with a runner-up finish in between. His best stretch thus far this year has been a late-summer spurt that saw Johnson record a pair of runner-up finishes sandwiched around a fourth-place result. Johnson also placed second and first, respectively, in the two races before Charlotte to make up most of a moderate deficit he incurred in an uncharacteristically poor performance at New Hampshire.

Teammate Jeff Gordon isn't conceding anything. "Anything is possible," he said. "If you're a good enough team, then it's possible, and that's what makes them so dangerous. They are capable of pulling those types of finishes together when you might not expect it. There are a couple of other teams out there that are capable of doing that as well. You can't count anybody out yet."

Still, he's up against more than just the other Chase drivers. Johnson had six races in which to make up his 2006 deficit, as compared to five now. He no longer has Atlanta, one of his better tracks, to fall back on. Another of his favorites, Phoenix, has been reconfigured. He still has to go through Talladega, where he won in the spring, but where anything can happen. And he's working under a point system in which eight drivers probably still harbor legitimate shots at the championship. Rallying from a 35-point deficit this year might be more of a challenge than even his epic comeback of five years ago.

But another run of 2-1-2-2-2? "It is possible," said Edwards, who hasn't finished worse than ninth since Michigan in August. "I feel like we have had a run like that the last five races, but not as good as that run. It is so competitive right now. ... I think it will be more difficult for someone to have that blistering run where they knock off four or five top-threes or -fours in a row, but it is possible. The problem is, it is possible for six or eight guys to do it. So it comes down to circumstance and luck and strategy. I hope we are the guys that can do that, but I believe it is more competitive now. I will just leave it at that."

For his part, Johnson seems as unflustered as ever. Better than anyone, he knows what his team accomplished in 2006, and knows of what he is capable. Back then, he had two bad Chase races and was able to rebound. Counting New Hampshire and Charlotte, he's had two bad races in this Chase. Now it's time to see if he has another historic rally within him.

"Things feel great now, and we've just got to go racing," he said. "There's still five races left in this Chase. A lot still can happen, and I know what my team and myself [are] capable of, and we're going to go out there and work for every point we can get."

Watch Jimmie Johnson's Chase highlights: