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Retro: Think Johnson's done? Consider '06 comeback

September 30, 2011, Mark Aumann,

In remarkable playoff, champ never wavered, the competition couldn't keep pace

Based on the results of the first two races of the 2011 Chase, Jimmie Johnson's chances at a sixth consecutive championship seem tenuous at best. After running out of fuel at Chicagoland and struggling with his car after bouncing off Kyle Busch at New Hampshire, the numbers don't look good. He's 10th in the standings, 29 points behind back-to-back race winner Tony Stewart.

But before anyone decides to dismiss his chances, consider Johnson's remarkable comeback in 2006, when he started the Chase with not two, but four consecutive finishes outside of the top 10. Thanks to a series of unfortunate events involving the rest of the Chase field, his typical domination at Martinsville and a late-season hot streak from Stewart, Johnson rallied from an even larger deficit that year.

Doomed or destined?

As Jimmie Johnson sits 10th in points, the lowest he's ever been in the Chase standings, Track Smack wonders if the drive for a sixth title is in jeopardy.

Under the current points system, he would have been as many as 45 points behind after three races and still won the title. In fact, Johnson wouldn't have taken the points lead until Phoenix, when he finished second and finally caught and passed Matt Kenseth.

After winning two of the first three races of the 2006 season, including the Daytona 500, Johnson came into that year's Chase as not only the defending champion but as a decided favorite. Still, Johnson started off five points behind Kenseth (although under this year's rules, Kasey Kahne would have held a three-point lead over both, thanks to his five regular season wins).

But when the Chase kicked off at New Hampshire, Johnson stumbled right out of the gate. He was collected in a three-car accident involving Stewart and Greg Biffle, winding up a dismal 39th. And things didn't get much better for much of the rest of September: 13th at Dover, 14th at Kansas and then a last-lap incident with Brian Vickers while racing Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the win at Talladega, leading to a 24th-place finish.

While Johnson struggled mightily week after week, the drivers battling at the top of the standings had an even worse time. Kevin Harvick, who had won at New Hampshire, wound up 32nd at Dover. Jeff Gordon, six points behind Jeff Burton after two races, finished 39th at Kansas. And then Talladega bit Burton, as he finished 27th.

With the major contenders playing hot potato with the points lead, Johnson wasn't losing any ground -- even though he wasn't making up significant amounts, either. That's because a number of non-Chase drivers, particularly Stewart, were busy dominating the top 10 nearly every week and keeping any particular Chase driver from piling up a decided advantage. Stewart wound up winning at Kansas, Atlanta and Texas, while Vickers prevailed at Talladega and Biffle won the finale at Homestead.

So even though Johnson trailed Jeff Burton by 146 points with five races to go, no one had asserted themselves at the top of the standings to that point. That all seemed to change at Martinsville.

Johnson led 245 laps, including the final 56, to score the win. Coupled with Burton's early-race engine failure, Kenseth's mid-race spin -- and troubles for Mark Martin and Earnhardt -- the momentum had swung enough to lift Johnson all the way back up to third.

From that point on, Johnson never wavered and the competition couldn't keep pace. While Johnson put together second-place finishes over the next three events, things went terribly wrong for Harvick and Kenseth.

Harvick finished a miserable 31st at Atlanta and then unintentionally ruined Kenseth's night at Texas a week later when he tapped Scott Riggs while racing for third in the closing laps. As Riggs hit the wall, Kenseth spun through the infield and eventually finished 12th. That, coupled with a 13th-place finish at Phoenix, gave Johnson a comfortable 63-point cushion heading into Homestead, where a ninth-place finish was more than good enough to win the title.

So can history repeat itself in 2011? Johnson definitely has his work cut out for him this season, for two reasons. One, the No. 48 team has just one win this season and hasn't shown the killer instinct we've seen in recent years.

Two, Stewart's back-to-back victories have certainly thrown the standings into disarray. However, getting off to a great start hasn't proven to be any more of a lock than getting off to a slow one is a detriment. Consider the case of Biffle in 2008.

He won New Hampshire and Dover, and finished third at Kansas, putting him in a tie for second, 10 points behind Carl Edwards. But things unraveled at Talladega, when an overzealous Edwards crashed him while trying to bumpdraft, and Biffle never seemed to recover. He eventually finished more than 200 points behind Johnson that season.

Having to leap nine other drivers puts Johnson in somewhat uncharted territory. However, it's definitely way too early to count Johnson out, particularly with his past performance at places like Martinsville and Phoenix.

After all, Johnson himself has shown that a red-hot finish can overcome an ice-cold start to the Chase. It's just a matter of what your competition does -- or doesn't do -- with the advantage given.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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