Carl Edwards and his mother might tell you that Jimmie Johnson still doesn’t have this thing sewn up. There are others who will promise that at least five guys had a prayer as recently as four races ago. And there are fully eleven who will swear on all they find holy that they were the one to beat nine races ago.
Yeah, well, each and every one of them was, is, and will forever be wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the engraver might as well have etched Johnson’s name onto the trophy back in September – sorry, Carl, the Fat Lady not only sang, but she’s gone Elvis and left the building.
Forget what Johnson has done over the course of the last three seasons, encompassing 107 races, though he’s done more than all but a few drivers have done throughout their careers – 22 wins, 26 other top-five finishes. Just consider what he’s done in each of the last 29 Chase races: seven wins and eight other top five-finishes. An average finish of about eighth.
Apparently, the higher the stakes, the better the driver.
Certainly, there’s luck involved – Johnson missed the proverbial Big One at Talladega not once, but twice, by a combined total of about six inches. However, there’s a lot to be said for making your own luck. Look at Phoenix: with Edwards a manageable 106 points back by virtue of a dramatic win at Texas, Johnson takes the pole, leads 217 of 313 laps, and wins the race. Going away. And, in the process, increases his lead to a virtually insurmountable 141 points. That he needs to finish 36th-or-better in Miami to clinch the title is all but immaterial: He hasn’t finished lower than 15th in a Chase race since 2006.
And as jaw-droppingly insane as Johnson’s overall performance has been the last three Chases, look at what he’s done this year: second, fifth, first, ninth, sixth, first, second, 15th and first. How impressive is Johnson? “We were pretty good today, but we weren’t that good,” said 2004 champion Kurt Busch, who finished second at Phoenix. “What he’s building on and what they’re doing with three championships in a row, it’s something very special. Jimmie Johnson is putting a whooping on everybody. I was proud to finish second today.”
I was proud to finish second. Think about that: In a sport where you’re lucky to find a driver who will admit that, well, yeah, the sky is blue, a former champion and one of the circuit’s best drivers speaks the unspeakable: It’s over.