Bruce Martin
Sunday October 18th, 2009

Jimmie Johnson has turned "The Chase" into NASCAR's version of Groundhog Day.

And there appears little the other 11 drivers in The Chase can do to keep Johnson from winning a record fourth-straight Sprint Cup title, especially after Johnson's dominating performance in Saturday night's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

The rest of the Chasers have to feel as helpless and frustrated as Pittsburgh meteorologist Phil Connors, the character played by Bill Murray in the 1993 film when during a trip to Punxsutawney, Pa. for the annual "Groundhog Day," he finds himself repeating the same day, over and over.

Well, that's what The Chase has turned into the last four years, as 12 drivers start the 10-race portion of the schedule -- only for 11 to watch Johnson and the No. 48 team at Hendrick Motorsports drive away with the Cup.

As cloudy and overcast as it was Saturday in the Piedmont of North Carolina, nobody saw their shadow, meaning six more weekends of Jimmie Johnson.

He won his sixth career Cup race at the 1-1/2-mile oval Saturday night and heads to a track next weekend that suits his style even better -- the short track known as Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson is a six-time winner.

"We've won more races in the last couple years there than probably anywhere, and hoping for another one," Johnson said.

Where's "Punxsutawney Phil" when you need him? Or, better yet, Andie McDowell, the Gaffney, S.C.-born actress who played Rita in the film version of Groundgog Day, who finally broke the time loop bringing Connors into Feb. 3.

But with the victory increasing Johnson's lead over Mark Martin to 90 points and third-place Jeff Gordon now trailing by 135 points, when NASCAR's fellow drivers wake up on Nov. 23 -- the day after the season's finale race at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- they are going to be reading about Johnson's record fourth-straight Cup title.

Consider that in the first five races of The Chase Johnson has won three of the five -- actually three of the last four races.

So, what can be done to prevent Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and team owner Rick Hendrick from celebrating a fourth straight title?

"That's a good question," said Carl Edwards, who is 10th in the standings and, at 341 points behind Johnson, realizes he is all but mathematically out of serious contention. "The simple answer is we need to beat them. A year ago at this time, I felt like head-to-head slight edge on the race track. We have to figure out what about our operation, our problem-solving, our testing, what allows them to be ahead more in the curve than the rest of us. I think that's what everyone has to look at is we have to figure out what their process is and how they do so well because it's spectacular.

"Not to take anything away from Jimmie as a driver, but they are always on top of it with strategy, equipment, failure rates, qualifying, all the things that make an entire package they're very good."

There are only six drivers within 200 points of Johnson and Martin is the only driver less than 100 points back. Johnson is going to have to incur some bad luck while another driver will have to get hot in order to derail his championship Chase.

"It's all about us to knock Jimmie Johnson off the top," said fellow Chaser Kurt Busch of Penske Racing, who is fifth in the standings 177 behind Johnson. "Those guys have the perfect combination; it seems like, for all the race tracks. They've done it the last three years. It's amazing.

"Just the combination of Hendrick Motorsports, Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson, and Chevrolet ... you name it. The depth that they have is deep. It's like having a basketball team with four or five guys on the bench that could be starters for other teams. It seems like they just have all the weapons.

"For the rest of us, it's going to take some luck. It's going to take some hard work. There might be something that we can do to out-smart a Chad Knaus or to out-drive a Jimmie Johnson. But there's no way that we can rally 11 versus one. That would be the ideal situation. We'd want 11 versus one."

Yes, only a "gang fight" might keep Johnson from driving to another championship, but there is one problem to that concept -- somebody has to catch Johnson's Chevrolet before the rest of the posse can jump in.

"All we can do is be optimistic about our programs and try to figure out a way to beat him each week," said Greg Biffle, who is seventh in the standings, 268 behind Johnson. "Whether we can beat the 48 (Johnson) or the 5 (Martin) or the 24 (Gordon), whoever it is, we'll just wait and see what happens, but that's all we can do every week is do our best."

Five of Johnson's six Martinsville Speedway wins have come in the last six races at the flat, half-mile track. And while the other drivers seem to concede that Johnson's dominance at Martinsville will continue, they are targeting the Talladega race in two weeks as their last best chance to make up some ground on Johnson.

But the points leader admits there are more land mines in his path to another championship.

"Sure, that's the track that you don't have any control at," Johnson said of Talladega. "But we're only halfway through this thing. So much can happen. Somebody at Martinsville can lose their brakes and clean you out. With the double file restart there's going to be a lot of bumping and banging. Someone can get into you and knock a valve stem out or cut a tire.

"It's a nice points lead, but there's no need for anybody to get too excited yet.

"We've got good tracks ahead for us, so from a team standpoint we're excited and optimistic, but there is a lot of danger out there and we've just got to be smart."

Being smart is what has gotten Johnson, Knaus and Hendrick in this position.

In fact, winning a championship isn't just a goal with these guys; it's an expectation.

"Yeah, it is," Hendrick admitted. "I don't like to say it that way, but you want to win it, you think you can win it, but you know it's going to be a fight. You folks and the fans expect it.

"And I'll tell you we're going to enjoy it while we can."

Even Hendrick knows that Groundhog Day will eventually end, that some year another driver will win the Sprint Cup title.

But in the meantime, the alarm clock for NASCAR continues to go off at 6 a.m. with Sonny and Cher singing "I Got You, Babe," just as it did for Bill Murray in the movie.

It might be time to put Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on 24-hour supervision or have him call the crisis hotline from comments he made at Lowe's speedway Friday afternoon. The NASCAR Sprint Cup driver at Hendrick Motorsports is as down and frustrated as he has ever been in his career over a season -- and a career -- that is on a downward spiral. Entering Saturday night's NASCAR Banking 500 at LMS, Earnhardt is 22nd in points and has won just one race since May 2006.

"I've been riding it out but there comes a point where you don't want to ride it out anymore," Earnhardt said. "I've just had enough. It's been a long year. I don't want the year to be over with because I like coming to the race track every week and going racing. But the last year has been so low.

"The highs haven't been very high and the lows are terribly low. It's hard to want to get back up and try again next week when you take such a beating," he said. "I don't know what else to do. I don't really know. I just don't know. We struggle as a team sometimes. I don't know."

Case in point was last Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana:. Earnhardt's Chevrolet was actually running in the top 10 for most of the race before contact with another car ended his race.

"We were running pretty good at California and Ryan Newman hit me in the left-rear quarter panel coming out of Turn 4 and knocked the valve-stem out," Earnhardt recalled. "I had a flat going down the front straightaway and I couldn't go anywhere because I had guys on the inside of me. Elliott Sadler didn't know I had a flat and neither did the 17 (Matt Kenseth) behind him. When they got to me, I didn't have any air in the tire.

"That was frustrating and I was really upset."

Those frustrations continued to mount in Thursday night's qualifying session at the 1-1/2-mile oval located near Charlotte, leading to even more depression for Earnhardt. He started 39th and finished 38th on Saturday night.

"I went out to qualify after being top 15 in practice and we ended up being one of the worst cars here," Earnhardt said. "We don't have an answer for that. All the other cars backed their times up from practice and we weren't even close. We looked ridiculous last night.

"It's really encouraging one day and then the next day it's equally discouraging. That gets really old. I'm at the end of my rope," he said. "I don't know what is next. I was thinking about that last night. I don't know what the logical next step would be. We seem to be getting better but even getting better is not satisfying me at all."

Midway through this season, Earnhardt's cousin and long-time crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. was replaced by Lance McGrew. Obviously, team owner Rick Hendrick couldn't replace the driver, so Eury became the scapegoat.

The Earnhardt/McGrew combination improved the team's performance slightly before returning to a disappointing level for the remainder of the season.

So should McGrew be back as Earnhardt's crew chief in 2010?

"I haven't talked to Rick about it," Earnhardt said. "I don't have the credentials to make the call. If I told you that I wanted to be Lance next year I wouldn't be telling you that out of my knowledge, expertise or talent; I'd be telling you that because it's fun hanging out with him.

"Whoever I work with needs to be a dictator. Know what I mean?

"The most success I've had was with Tony Eury, Sr. and you know how he runs his ship. I don't think Tony Sr. would be interested in working in the Cup series. It's not a very fun place. It takes a lot to be here. Anybody who works in this garage it's really frustrating and really hard and you really have to commit yourself. He's been out of it and he knows there is more to life and he doesn't want to get back in it.

"I just don't think I'm the guy to leave that decision up to because I wouldn't make the right one. There are better people to make it. There are a lot of smart people in the organization. I'm waiting for somebody to make the call," Earnhardt said. "I like working with Lance and there is nothing wrong with how that is going. Hell, you don't even know if Lance wants to do it. I wouldn't want to do it. It's a tough job.

"Just put the damn team together and say this is what you've got and this is what you are going to do next year. Just make it happen."

Earnhardt admits he is filled with self-doubt. He thought when he left the family-controlled Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) in 2007 to join Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, it would return him to prominence in Sprint Cup racing.

"I'm past second-guessing everything," Earnhardt said. "I'm over it to be honest with you. I'm just coming to the race track, climbing in a car and if it goes fast, it goes fast.

"Hopefully, we can finish a race. That would do a lot for us if we could finish one. I ain't ready for the season to be over with because I like going to the race track and racing but there is only one guy that will be happy at the end of it. Sometimes you just have to run better and it's not happening and it's not happening fast enough.

"I just want to run better. We aren't running good enough. Even when we were creeping in the top 10 like we were last week, it just really gets frustrating. I don't know what the answer is.

"I feel like I don't have any control. Rick has put me in a great position but I haven't made the most of it or for whatever reason we aren't getting it done.

"I don't know what to do."

It's obvious by hearing these comments that Earnhardt status in the sport has led to a breaking point. The high expectations that come with being Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are beginning to take a might big toll on the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt.

After building up a lead of record proportions, it appeared the 2009 Formula One World Championship was Jenson Button's to lose. And lose it, he nearly did, going into a midseason tailspin that allowed his Brawn F1 Racing teammate Rubens Barrichello and Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel to close the gap on the driver from Great Britain.

And with Sunday's Grand Prix in Brazil, the stage was set for Brazilian Barrichello to put even more pressure on Button.

But when Button finished fifth on Sunday at Interlagos, it was enough to clinch the champions because Barrichello faltered and finished eight while Vettel's fourth place finish eliminated him from title consideration.

"It's really amazing," Button told the BBC. "My voice has gone ... especially after the last few races; that was such an awesome race. I'm world champion baby, yeah. It is all I've aimed for; 21 years ago I jumped into a car (dreaming of this). I love winning but I never expected to be world champion."

Button even broke into the old Queen ballad, "We Are the Champions" over the team's radio after crossing the finish line, has been winless since the Turkish Grand Prix in early June.

What makes Button's championship even more amazing is it appeared he was out of a ride after Honda left F1 at the end of last season, closing the doors to the factory-backed operation.

Team engineer Ross Brawn rescued the team when he was able to put a group of investors together.

"The work the team did over the winter was sensational - it is the reason we are here," Brawn said. "I include in that the people who had to leave us ... the people who worked hard all winter and had to leave the team afterwards. They are part of what we've done."

Button won six of the first seven races this season before cooling off dramatically as the summer temperatures warmed up.

"We've made hard work of it in second half of the year," Brawn said afterward. "But he knew what he had to do and he's stuck with it -- and he deserves everything he's got.

"It's still got to sink in."

Mark Webber of Australia drove to victory at Brazil.

After being the only driver to start off The Chase with four top-five finishes, Juan Pablo Montoya's 35th-place finish at Charlotte pretty much dooms any serious chance he had at contending for the 2009 Cup title.

Montoya dropped from third, 58 point behind Jimmie Johnson, to sixth, 195 out of the lead.

"If you're expecting to have ten clean races then you're dreaming," Montoya said afterwards. "We knew it could happen and here, always the restarts are an issue and I managed to slow down and I just got hit from behind. It happens."

When asked if this was the worst case scenario, Montoya snapped back, "For what? We made the Chase and up until today we had four top five's in a row and what's bad about it? We were actually surprised; everybody on the team is doing such a good job that even today we had a faster car than the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson). So, it happens.

"It's one of those racing things that will happen and we've just got to move on. It's okay.

"It's racing."

"He would have retired for sure by now. We had talked about it that winter, knowing kind of what his plans were and what he wanted to do. Where he wanted to see his career go. He sort of had his plan. I'll tell it someday, but not today." -- NASCAR team owner Richard Childress on if Dale Earnhardt was still alive, would he still be racing?

"I spoke to him earlier in the year. It's a tough situation. I don't know if you've ever heard the song that Hank Williams Jr. sings, it's tough living (in the shadow) of a very famous man. That is what Junior is doing and everybody's got their expectations so high. And when you don't fulfill those expectations, people think you're not there. But Junior can still drive a race car. He can compete. He can win. And he will win a championship some day; it's just a matter of going through a few of these peaks and valleys and I've spoke to him a couple of times trying to give him the encouragement to keep digging because we've been there. We're almost there right now. We're seeing a little daylight." -- Childress talking about Dale Earnhardt, Jr's struggles this season.

"I talked to Joey Logano after the race and I said, 'What's most disappointing for me is to race a young guy like yourself that has a lot of talent and a lot of ability and something like that goes on on the race track and you don't come over and say anything to a guy -- about, hey, sorry I messed your race up, sorry I ran into you, didn't think we would get together, thought we had more room -- something like that. I think you need to pay a little more respect to the veterans in this sport.' He chopped down in front of Tony Stewart at Dover and that didn't work out for him and I was pretty angry over that, so I just squeezed him out of room. I didn't run him into the fence on purpose. I just meant to put a little squeeze on him like he did to me at Kansas.

"I had nowhere to go and I wanted to put him in that situation and see what he thought about having nowhere to go and having to keep the wheel straight with not a lot of room to race. We made more contact than I certainly expected. You can see he bounced off the wall and came down. You can blame it on me for just plain running him into the wall, but that's not the way it happened. I shouldn't have done that. He worked on his car and fixed it, and was able to come back. Unfortunately for me, it was the last run of the day in Kansas and I didn't have an opportunity to fix my car." -- Greg Biffle on his recent run-ins with 19-year-old rookie Joey Logano.

"I went from thinking I was going to die, to wanting to die, to being afraid I was going to live, to now seeing rainbows, Calliopes, clowns, and dreams of a better tomorrow." -- Bill Walton. OK, so he's not a race driver; he's a former basketball player for UCLA, the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics, but this is still one of the greatest quotes spoken by a sports figure this year.

Can Jimmie Johnson continue NASCAR's version of "Groundhog Day" with a seventh victory at Martinsville Speedway? We'll all find out when the sixth race of the 10-race Chase concludes next Sunday.

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