In NASCAR's Chase finale, Jimmie Johnson sewed up an unprecedented fourth straight Sprint Cup and stamped himself as the greatest ever. Now how do you stop him?
Every year Jimmie Johnson dashes the hopes of someone new. In 2006 the victim was Matt Kenseth, the '03 Cup champion and one of the most consistent drivers of his generation. Kenseth put together a career season in '06 with a personal-best 15 top five finishes—and yet he couldn't catch Johnson.
The next year it was Jeff Gordon, a four-time champ and full-blown stock car legend. Before the Chase in 2007, Gordon confided to an acquaintance that, in his estimation, it would take an average finish of 7.0 to win the title. Ten nearly flawless races later he ended the Chase with an average of 5.1—yet still lost by 77 points.
In 2008 it was Carl Edwards. That should have been Edwards's dream season. Driving for the dominant team that year (Roush Fenway Racing), he won a series-high nine races—yet fell 69 points short in the Chase.
November 30, 2009
And this fall it was Mark Martin's turn. As the 50-year-old driver sat in the back of his number 5 hauler at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 14, the day before the season's penultimate race, he rubbed his hands over his lined face and observed in a quiet voice that this had been the finest, fastest season of his 27-year Cup career. He had come into the Chase as the top seed—yet when it was over he had lost the title by 141 points.
On Sunday evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway the 34-year-old Johnson became the first driver in the 61-year history of NASCAR's top series to win four straight season championships, cruising past Cale Yarborough (the winner in 1976, '77 and '78) in the record books. How transcendent has Johnson's title run been? Put simply, it's the racing equivalent of an NFL team winning four straight Super Bowls. "Jimmie and his team might be the best there's ever been," says Richard Petty, NASCAR's alltime wins leader (200) and a seven-time Cup champion. "It's hard to compare drivers from different eras, but I do know this: I wouldn't want to be racing against him right now."
Johnson arrived in South Florida for Sunday's Ford 400, the final race of the season, with a 108-point lead over Martin, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, which meant all Johnson needed to do was finish 25th or better in the field of 43 and he'd be the champion again, even if Martin led the most laps and took the checkered flag. After winning the pole with a spectacular qualifying lap on Friday, Johnson led 28 of the first 32 laps on Sunday and then settled in to cruise carefully and comfortably around the 1.5-mile track, staying clear of other cars and never pushing his. With Jeff Gordon, another Hendrick teammate, directly behind him in the closing 30 laps, protecting him from other drivers, Johnson came home in fifth place (behind winner Denny Hamlin) to take the title by 141 points over Martin, who finished 12th at Homestead. Gordon, in sixth, sewed up the third spot in the final standings, giving Hendrick an unprecedented 1-2-3 season.
But for the record books, the night was Johnson's, and as he crossed the finish line, he yelled in triumph on the radio to his crew, "History, boys. No one ever! Ever!"
Kurt Busch, who finished fourth in the standings, summed up what makes Johnson unique. "There's not a single thing that Jimmie doesn't do well," he said. "He's great on restarts. He's cool under pressure. He's got awesome car control, and he doesn't make mistakes. In all of these areas, he's as good as anyone in the sport. He's the total package."
It's not easy to discern what makes a driver great in motor sports. After all, there are differences among the cars, and there's nothing you can measure in NASCAR that is like a 40-yard dash in football or length off the tee in golf. But talk to those closest to Johnson and to those who race against him each week, and they will tell you—to a man—that what separates Johnson from everyone else in the sport is one thing: his mind. "I've been around for a long time, and I've never seen anyone better prepared mentally than Jimmie," says Martin. "First and foremost, he's great because of what he does outside of the car. It's almost like he's won the race before he gets behind the wheel."
Indeed, there was Johnson last Thursday afternoon in a conference room at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Coral Gables, Fla., an hour before he was to take part in a group press conference with Martin and team owner Rick Hendrick. Johnson sat in front of his laptop and pored over his notes from the 2008 season finale at Homestead. With the glow of his computer screen lighting his face, Johnson studiously read what he had written a few days after that race. My exit was decent, he noted of Turn 3 at Homestead, but would end up loose off if I really hit the center well. It didn't feel like the back of the car was on the track.
"The way to correct this for Sunday might be to take some right rear spring out," Johnson explained to a visitor as he scrolled through his notes. "But Chad [Knaus, Johnson's crew chief] has my report, so I'm sure he'll make all the right adjustments. He always does."
In his report Johnson also detailed his preferred line around the track, potential pitfalls on pit road, and how the track conditions changed as the sun went down. "This is so important for me to have," Johnson said, "because it's like I'm running laps in my head as I go back and reread what I've written. By the time I get to the track, I'll have run the race countless times in my mind."
And when Johnson fires the engine in his Lowe's Chevy and rumbles onto the track, his approach is equally cerebral. Take what happened at Phoenix on Nov. 15. Midway through the race Johnson held a commanding lead. But then Denny Hamlin started turning in faster lap times than Johnson. Noticing Hamlin moving up in his mirror, Johnson radioed Knaus in the pits, and his spotter, Earl Barban, on top of the grandstand. "Let's keep an eye on [Hamlin] and see where he's beating us on the track," Johnson said over the radio. "Then we can figure out how to get faster than him."
Which is precisely what happened. Realizing that Hamlin was faster through the turns, Knaus called for an air-pressure adjustment on Johnson's tires on the 242nd of the race's 312 laps. Suddenly the wheels started sticking far better through the turns. Johnson would not get passed the rest of the race; he took the checkered flag in a yawner.
"Jimmie is almost like a computer the way he sizes up his competition as well as his car," Hendrick says. "And when there are 20 laps to go, he knows how to find that extra oomph. He doesn't punish his car during the race, but he'll find where the edge of being out of control is. Then, when he needs it at the end, he'll drive that thing on the edge and get the most speed out of it that he can. That's why you rarely see him get passed late."
The statistics back Hendrick up. During the 40 Chase races over the last four seasons Johnson has been passed for the lead in the last 20 laps just three times. By contrast he has made a pass for the win in the final 20 laps eight times. That edge helps explain why Johnson has three times as many career wins in the Chase (18) as anyone else. (The closest to him is Edwards, with six.)
"What makes Jimmie and Chad so hard to beat," Edwards says, "is that they'll come to a track, win the pole, lead the most laps, win the race—and then, damn it, they'll be even better the next time they come to that same track because they do such a good job analyzing every bit of information they acquire during race weekend. It's a snowball effect. They start off with better notes to use at a track than anyone else, and then they go and improve on those notes. At this point, I don't know how anyone is going to catch them."
So how do you beat Johnson and Knaus in the Chase? With input from more than a dozen rival drivers, crew chiefs, engineers and team owners, SI has developed a five-step plan to topple this dynasty in 2010.
Step 1: Always have the Chase on your mind.
One of the reasons Johnson and Knaus have been so dominant in the Chase is that they are constantly looking ahead to the 10-race playoff, even as early as the season-opening Speedweeks at Daytona in February. "Daytona has some similar characteristics to Fontana [home of Auto Club Speedway], which is a Chase track, so we'll test some things out for the Chase at Daytona," says Knaus. "Everywhere we go, we've got the Chase on our minds."
Johnson finished ninth at Fontana last February, in the Auto Club 500 at the California track, but in October, when the series returned for the fourth Chase race, he passed Gordon with six laps to go to win. Think that was just happenstance? No, for Johnson and Knaus, the first Fontana race was merely a warmup. Other teams must follow this model of Chase-testing every week.
2. Start the Chase fast.
There's been talk in the garage of needing to "Jimmie-proof" the Chase, just as the pooh-bahs at Augusta National lengthened the golf course in 2002 to try to Tiger-proof the Masters. Many drivers will tell you that the Chase venues need to be changed because Johnson runs well at virtually all of the ones on the current schedule. But which tracks could be added? Bristol Motor Speedway, where Johnson's career average finish is 15.9, or the road course at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., where it's 17.4? Adding those tracks certainly might level the playing field, but NASCAR officials insist there are no plans to alter the schedule.
But there is one track in the Chase at which Johnson is relatively vulnerable: New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which hosts the first race in the playoffs. Johnson's career average finish there is 9.5, including six Chase races. "You've got to get a lead on [Johnson and his team] early to make them feel the pressure," says one driver, who requested anonymity. "You've got to punch them in the mouth, so to speak, right away at New Hampshire. If you can do that, you might force Jimmie to be more aggressive than usual, and that's when mistakes happen."
3. Keep Johnson in your sights at the intermediate-length tracks in the Chase.
On tracks that measure between one and two miles in length, Johnson's career average finish in the Chase is an astounding 9.2. Five of the 10 Chase races take place at these venues, which is why it sometimes seems as if Johnson drew up the playoff schedule himself. It's not likely that a driver will pick up more points on these tracks next year, but to win the title you must stay close to him. How can a team accomplish this? Work aggressively this off-season and during the regular season to improve team performance at these venues, which means building new cars that are equipped with the latest technology and are designed specifically for these Chase tracks. This year, for instance, Juan Pablo Montoya of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing drove five brand-new cars in the Chase. He had three top five finishes (plus two more in older cars) after having just two in the 26-race regular season.
4. Beat him at Talladega.
'Dega is the one race during the Chase that requires more luck than skill. Because of the restrictor plates that are placed on the carburetors to reduce speed, the cars sweep around the 2.66-mile tri-oval in large, tightly bunched packs. One slight bobble can trigger a multicar wreck, an all-too-common occurrence at Talladega. Johnson has managed to slip through big pileups for three straight years in the Chase—he's the first to admit that he's been blessed with more than a little luck—and it's one of the main reasons he made history on Sunday night. Consider: He gained 62 points on Edwards at Talladega in 2008 when Edwards wrecked in a large group (Johnson ended up beating Edwards by 69 points), and this year he gained 66 points on Martin, who got flipped in a 13-car wreck on the penultimate lap on Nov. 1.
"Talladega makes me more nervous than any other race in the Chase," Johnson says. "We've had some good fortune there recently. Hopefully that will continue."
Because Johnson is so good on the other tracks, it's imperative to pick up points on him here.
5. Make him feel some pressure at Homestead.
During his four-title run Johnson has always held a comfortable lead in the standings heading into the season finale. His closest battle was in 2006, when he needed only to finish 12th or better at Homestead to win the Cup. (He wound up coming in ninth.) Would his cool hand at the wheel perspire a little if he held, say, a five-point lead or actually trailed by a few points? "I don't know," says one team owner, "but I sure as hell would like to find out. In fact, I think everyone in the sport would."
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"This team might be the best there's ever been," Petty says. "I wouldn't want to be racing against [them]."
"I've been around a long time," says Martin, "but I've never seen anyone better prepared mentally."