Brant James
Wednesday October 15th, 2008

Five races, five opportunities for Jimmie Johnson to hold on to the Sprint Cup points lead and become just the second driver to win three consecutive titles. Or five races for Jeff Burton or Greg Biffle to track him down and deny him the chance to join legend Cale Yarborough in one of the most select of NASCAR companies

The case for him holding on:

1. This is Jimmie Johnson season: The 33-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver has scored more points in the last five races of the season every year of the Chase system except for 2005. In 2004, the first year the system was used, Johnson won four of the last six events and finished second in the last race of the season at Homestead-Miami, falling eight points short of champion Kurt Busch.

2. This is Chad Knaus season: Johnson's mad scientist crew chief is both intelligent and cocksure enough to realize that his driver will qualify for the 12-driver Chase cut barring unforeseen disaster. As in collapse. As in calamity. Before the Car of Tomorrow was implemented full-time this season, he and his No. 48 crew utilized a cache of data on the "old car" to tweak and cajole it into a high state of competitiveness on a weekly basis.

Though it would seem reasonable the "new car" made much of that information obsolete, Knaus was seemingly able to use many of the 26 "regular season" races as live tests. Johnson, who won six of 26 regular season races in 2007, drew great scrutiny for not winning early this year, especially considering Hendrick Motorsports' dominance in "Car of Tomorrow" last season. But Johnson reached the playoffs with four wins and on a two-race win streak. The rest of the field caught up to Hendrick's 2007 level, and Johnson's team, it seems, was working ahead to the final exam.

3. This is no one else's season: Busch won the 2004 title by winning the first Chase race at New Hampshire, running high but without endangering his lead and holding on when misfortune and near-misfortune befell him in the final weeks. Tony Stewart didn't win a Chase race at all in 2005. Johnson leads all drivers with 12 wins in 45 Chase races as a Chase driver. Kyle Busch, who led the series with eight wins in the regular season -- and would be just 64 points behind Johnson under the pre-2004 system -- flamed out in the Chase. He was supposed to be the main obstacle to Johnson's third straight title run and he wasn't so much as a orange cone.

4. The competition forgets the prize: Carl Edwards entered the Chase second and appeared in prime position to make a bid for Johnson's crown. He's had some spirited on-track battles with Johnson in the past and seemed to have the proper blend of talent (13 career wins), youth (29) and team (two-time champion Roush Fenway Racing). But his well- (perhaps over-) publicized feud with Kyle Busch demanded he divert time and energy explaining himself, and after triggering a multi-car wreck at Talladega two weeks ago, he accosted Kevin Harvick and was then thrown onto the hood of a Nationwide car by Harvick, who had said Edwards drove like a "pansy" in sparking the Talladega wreck.

Edwards spent another week explaining his actions in that incident. The even-keeled Jeff Burton has now emerged as the next suitor to the title; he's just 69 behind Johnson after winning at Charlotte on Saturday. He's finished in the top six in two of the last three races at Martinsville, site of Sunday's race. It would be out of character for the staid Burton to allow Edwards-like diversions to split his focus, so perhaps he is the last real threat.

5. Jeff Gordon has vanished: Gordon had a 68-point lead with five races left after winning at Charlotte last season, but Johnson won four straight, beginning at Martinsville, to take the lead with two races remaining. He won the championship by 77 points, the largest margin in Chase history. Gordon might have been planning on which mantel in which house he would place his fifth championship trophy. Then Johnson grabbed it and jumped out the window, denying his teammate/friend/co-team owner his best chance at a title since 2004.

Gordon, 37, has a crew chief, Steve Letarte, who is supposed to be privy to the same Hendrick Motorsports intelligence as Knaus. But Knaus has won two championships and built the ultimate NASCAR tournament team. Under the old system, Gordon would have won titles in 2004 and 2007 -- by 353 points. But Johnson has claimed half of the championships under the Chase system and is angling on 60 percent.

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