Wednesday November 25th, 2009

And now the question in NASCAR is this: Can anyone beat Jimmie?

It won't be easy. There are so many reasons why Jimmie Johnson has won four straight Cup championships -- the Chase schedule is perfect for him because it features his best tracks; he drives for the richest and deepest team in the sport (Hendrick Motorsports); he has perhaps the hardest-working crew chief in the sport (Chad Knaus) atop his pit box; and he's the most cerebral driver in the series -- so it will take a monster year for someone to beat the No. 48 team next year.

"We want more," Johnson said late on Sunday. "We don't feel like we're done yet."

In SI magazine this week, I write about how a team can topple the Johnson-Knaus dynasty next year. The most important thing is to always have the Chase on your mind. This means that even during the season-opener at Daytona, teams need to test equipment, setups and theories about finding speed in their cars that can be applied to the Chase. Knaus does this better than any other chief in the sport. For instance, Daytona, which isn't a Chase track, has some similar characteristics to Fontana, which is. So during practice sessions before the Daytona 500, Knaus will tinker with setups that can be used at Fontana. Other teams must follow Knaus' lead.

Who can rise up next year and give the 48-team a fight? I like Denny Hamlin's chances. If not for three DNFs in the Chase, Hamlin would have been right there with Johnson at Homestead, where he ended up taking the checkered flag. Plus, Hamlin will be entering his fourth season on the circuit, which tends to be a driver's magical year. Consider: Three of the last four champions (Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch) won their first title in their fourth year.

During this Chase, you could also see Hamlin maturing on and off the track. He can be temperamental behind the wheel when he feels his car isn't a good as it should be, and that only exacerbates problems because he's stops communicating effectively with his crew chief. But this was a new and improved version of Hamlin. He remained calm (for the most part) and really was the one driver able to race wheel-to-wheel with Johnson. At Homestead, Hamlin didn't have the fastest car at the start of the race, but he was able to find speed over the course of the evening by making adjustments during pit stops. It was a microcosm of his entire Chase.

"We were patient all day," Hamlin said on Sunday night. "We gained 15 spots on our first run but stalled out after that, although we kept working on it. We continued to make adjustments and toward the end, we went from 18th to sixth and then on to third and second, but we weren't content with that. Great pit stops helped us and after the last one, the car took off and it was game over."

"It is encouraging for our future and the way everyone worked together," said J.D. Gibbs, the co-owner of Joe Gibbs Racing. "No one panicked, which makes a big difference."

So can anyone beat Jimmie next year?

My ridiculously early prediction: It's unlikely.

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