Friday October 2nd, 2009

For one column, one moment, let's zig while everyone else zags. Let's not follow conventional wisdom and proclaim Jimmie Johnson the 2009 Sprint Cup champion just yet. Let's go in a different direction, run away from the groupthink.

Herewith, five reasons why Johnson -- the hottest driver on the circuit right now, the one who Mark Martin calls "Superman," the man who is seeking a record-setting fourth straight championship -- won't win the title come November:

1. His team and his equipment haven't been as reliable as in years past.

OK, so Johnson's pit crew and his power under the hood were pretty impressive last weekend in Dover, when he won the pole and then backed it up by taking the checkered flag at the Monster Mile. That victory put him within 10 points of Martin for the top spot in the standings and led more than a few in the garage and in the press box to already anoint JJ the 2009 champ. But look at this team with a wider lens, and it's clear that it has had some issues.

Last year Johnson headed into the Chase with more momentum -- an incredibly important X-factor in motor sports -- than any other driver. He won the last two events of the regular season in '08 and was in top form. This year was different. Before Sunday's W at Dover, the 48 team hadn't won since July at Indy and didn't even cracked the top 10 in the final six races of the regular season.

Worse, it has appeared wildly out-of-sorts. It ran out of gas at Michigan. Then at Bristol it had a top car, but was undone by a tire changer having a problem with lug nuts on pit road. That miscue caused a rare explosion of anger from Ron Mallack, the team's ultra-talented car chief and secret weapon, in my opinion. More problems at Richmond. Yes, this team looked downright vulnerable as it headed to the Chase.

Predictably, things have improved now that it's money time, but the 48 team doesn't possess the air of invincibility it flashed in recent years. In other words, over the last two months, it has looked beatable.

2. Talladega looms.

If there's one track that Johnson doesn't like in the Chase, it's 'Dega, the wildcard of NASCAR's playoff. Because restrictor-plates on the cars' carburetors limit airflow into the engines and keep speeds around 200 mph, the cars run in tight packs. One little bobble or twitch can cause the Big One -- the massive, multi-car wrecks that are common on plate tracks. There's always the threat that JJ could get caught up in the Big One and suffer a points-sapping 30th or worse finish.

It's happened before. He came in 30th in the spring race in 'Dega; in his 15 career starts at the 2.66-mile track he has an average finish of 17.7. What was the key moment of his title run last year? When he narrowly avoided the Big One that took out Carl Edwards and several other top contenders late in the race.

Will Johnson be as fortunate this year on the day after Halloween at Talladega? Stay tuned, but guaranteed, he's already thinking about it.

3. Jeff Gordon and his mastery of the 1.5-milers.

Here's a stat that may surprise you: Over the last 10 races on 1.5-mile tracks, Jeff Gordon leads the series in top fives (six), top 10s (eight), average finish (5.6) and points scored (1,583). Where does Johnson rank in points scored? Sixth, even though it's taken as an article of faith in the Cup garage that nobody can consistently beat Johnson at this length of track. That's hooey.

This means Gordon, currently eighth in the standings and 122 points behind Martin, will have recent history on his side this weekend at Kansas Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval. And he'll have again at three other upcoming 1.5-milers: Charlotte, Texas (where Gordon won earlier this year) and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Which leads us to...

4. The pressure cooker of the season finale.

Choke is too strong a word to describe what happened to Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus the last time they entered the season finale trailing in the point standings, but it's not too far off.

Go back to 2005. Tony Stewart held a 52-point lead over Johnson heading to Homestead. What happened? Well, Johnson battled a poor handling car for most of the race and wound crashing hard into the wall, finishing 40th, while Stewart light-footed it to the title. The lesson here: If a team can stay within striking distance of the 48 as the circuit heads to the season-ender -- meaning, you have to force Johnson and Knaus to finagle a top-five finish to win the title -- anything can happen.

There's also this: Homestead is one of Johnson's worst tracks in the Chase. He's never won there and has an average finish of 13.6.

5. That thing called "History."

No driver has ever won four titles in a row, and there's a reason for this: It's exquisitely difficult. One little misstep by the driver or the pit crew or the crew chief over these next eight races could doom the 48 team and open the door to Martin, Gordon or Stewart, who I think are the only other drivers capable of winning the championship.

Bottom line: The Chase is far from over. And I've got a strong hunch that, even though Johnson is the defending winner at Kansas, his quest for the Cup will hit a road bump on Sunday -- no matter what others would have you believe. Why? Because this team has yet to show in 2009 that it can dominate over long stretches the way it has in seasons past.

DID DALE JR. MAKE THE RIGHT MOVE?

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