Friday November 6th, 2009

It was approaching 9 p.m. on a cold February night, and the party in the back room of a Daytona, Fla., bar was just getting started. This was a couple of days before the season-opening Daytona 500, and Jimmie Johnson was throwing a kick-off soiree. As he strummed the chords of the guitar while playing the game Guitar Hero, his blonde-haired, blue-eyed wife, Chani, pounded on the drums, both of them joking around and laughing like teenagers on a date.

I talked at length with the Johnsons that night -- even apologizing to Chani that her name appeared as "Chandi" in a cover story I had written on Johnson two months earlier -- and what struck me was Johnson's confidence. Even back then, he felt strongly that he could do what no other driver has ever done: Win four straight Cup titles, which he can achieve as early as next week at Phoenix.

"I really do like our chances again this year," he said. "I mean, why shouldn't I? We've got a great organization and a great team. Chad [Knaus] is, I think, one of the best, if not the best crew chiefs in the sport. And, you know, we're just really good in the Chase. As long as we can get in, we've shown that we can run fast at pretty much every track in the Chase. A lot can happen, obviously, but I think we've got a shot at another one."

So far, Johnson has authored a virtually flawless Chase. Through seven races, he has three wins (a Chase record after seven races), seven top-10 finishes (a Chase record), an average finish of 3.28 (a Chase record), led a total of 720 laps (a Chase record), and holds a 184-point lead in the standings (a Chase record). You get the picture. Johnson and Knaus have been so ruthlessly dominating, in fact, that rival crew chiefs and drivers in the garage are already contemplating this vexing question: Just how in the hell are we going to beat these guys next year?

There is no good reason -- at least none that I can find -- to think Johnson won't rip off another top-five run on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. After all, Johnson leads all active drivers in average finish at Texas, where Johnson's 8.5 is better than Matt Kenseth (9.7), Denny Hamlin (11.6) and Tony Stewart (12.6). You could make the argument that Johnson is due some bad luck, but the fact is that it's blue-moon rare that bad luck ever strikes the No. 48 team. Just last week at Talladega Johnson narrowly avoided a terrible finish when, late in the race, he navigated his way through the Big One, which erupted directly in front of him. Even Johnson admitted that he was fortunate to finish sixth at 'Dega.

On Sunday, Johnson will be piloting chassis No. 552. How good is this car? Well, the last time Johnson drove it was in September at Dover, Del. All Johnson did that weekend was win the pole and the race. What if something happens to his primary car during practice or qualifying and Johnson has to pull out his backup vehicle? That one's not too bad either: He won with it at Charlotte in October.

To win the championship, all Johnson has to do is finish an average of 10th in every race -- and that's if Mark Martin, who is in second in the standings, wins out and leads the most laps in the last three races. "We're showing up to win races," Johnson said earlier this week. "It is a tough field of cars out there, and we need to be on our game. So with that in mind, we're going to race as hard as we can these next two races and see what happens for Homestead and see where we're at."

In what may be the most obvious pick I've made in my eight years on the NASCAR beat, I'm taking JJ to win on Sunday and then to clinch the championship in Phoenix a week later. That's how dominate he's been this season. It's almost as if, all the way back in February, he saw it coming.

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