Jimmie Johnson’s win last weekend in Phoenix seemed to put the final touches on his fourth straight championship run. With just one race standing between him and a record-breaking fourth straight Sprint Cup trophy, all Johnson will have to do next weekend at the Ford 400 at Homestead is finish 25th or better to earn the title. Me? I don’t hear the fat lady singing just yet. (And yes I am looking in your direction, Eddie Gossage.)
Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin still has one more shot to knock Johnson from his pedestal and earn his first series championship. Leaving Phoenix, Martin trails Johnson by 108 points and is the only driver still alive in the Chase. Jeff Gordon will be eliminated from contention when Johnson takes the green flag next week.
Johnson’s dominating performance one week after stumbling in Texas proved the team is deserving of its fourth title, but teammate Mark Martin will concede nothing. In Texas, Johnson suffered a rare setback after wrecking on lap 4. With the 48 team in the garage for lengthy repairs, Martin attempted to make up ground. Thanks to Johnson’s misfortune and a fourth-place finish, Martin gained 111 points on his teammate in one race.
Can he do it again? Yes, because he has done it before. In his career, Martin has gained more than 108 points on Johnson nine times in 265 races. Yes, that’s like .0000002 percent, but it’s something, and this is racing, and we all know there are no sure things.
Neither driver is headed to his best track. Martin has a better average finish (12.0 compared to Johnson’s 13.6), but the veteran has not raced at Homestead since 2007. The defending champion coasted home to a 15th-place finish in last year’s season finale, a finish that would earn him the title again this year. Johnson’s worst finish at the 1.5-mile oval is 40th (2005) and he finished 25th in his first trip there in 2001.
Perhaps the best example of how anything can happen in the season finale is the 2004 Ford 400. Although it was a much tighter points battle, Kurt Busch entered the day with Johnson close behind and three other drivers still in contention (Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin).
Busch started on the pole and led early, but just 93 laps into the 271-lap event his title hopes nearly vanished. Driving the Roush Racing No. 97, Busch reported a flat right front tire and made a quick dash to pit road under green. As Busch made the move off the banking the tire came off the car as he had to take evasive action to miss the pit wall by a matter of inches. The tire rolled down the frontstretch to bring out a caution and Busch was able to replace the tire and stay on the lead lap.
Falling to 28th, Busch was knocked from the points lead. The team continued to work on the damaged studs as Busch went to work making up for lost spots one car at a time. When the checkered flag fell, Johnson finished second, Gordon was third and Busch had fought back to fifth. The effort was good enough to take the title by just eight points – the closest in NASCAR history.
What this example shows is that anything can happen on Sunday. A loose wheel, a mistake on pit road, getting caught up in someone else’s mess, any of these things could dramatically change the course of the championship.
Both drivers know the importance of having a clean race and for Johnson the best way to do that is to run up front. Said Johnson, "Truthfully, I feel that my 12th-place qualifying effort in Texas put me in harm's way and I was just trying to drive a smart lap in qualifying and not do anything stupid and that put me in harm's way. So going into the race next weekend, I need to show up Friday ready to sit on the pole and then go from there and run up front. The safest place is up front in the top two or three and if we can stay there we'll be in good shape."
If all goes according to plan for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, they will be able to celebrate another amazing accomplishment. If not, the championship picture will tighten up and fans will get the battle they hoped for. A 108-point lead is a great position to have going into the last race of the year, but nothing is over until it’s over.