Chase script more like improvisation in Sprint Cup

Jimmie Johnson should quote easily from the Great Book of Winning the Chase for the Championship. He seemingly wrote it, after all. The chapters on late-season surges, demoralizing with utter domination and defending a title should spring to his lips.

But Johnson's face filled with contemplation for a moment last weekend at Richmond when he considered just how he would have to assail the final 10 races if he is to become just the second driver to win three consecutive titles at NASCAR's highest level.

Each of his championship drives has been different, and completely divergent from Kurt Busch's title run in the first Chase in 2004 and Tony Stewart's in 2005.

As NASCAR's playoff system turns 5 today at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it has proved one difficult game to handicap.

"It's going to depend on the first four or five weeks and how that goes," Johnson said. "In '06, we were convinced that you had to finish in the top 10 every week in order to win the championship and I left Talladega (156) points out of the lead and thought I was done, and still came back and won.

"Last year, you look at the average it took to win it and it was like a 4.6 or 4.8 to win the championship."

Johnson begins his fifth Chase third in points, 40 behind leader Kyle Busch and 10 behind Carl Edwards, but with a raft of momentum and a strong resume. Consider:

• He has won 11 of 40 Chase races, eight more than the next most successful Chase-eligible driver (Edwards).

• His 20 top fives are five better than Gordon, and his average finish of 9.5 leads the series.

• He has finished outside the top 10 just 12 times in Chase races, and no worse than 14th last season.

Busch knows his series-best eight wins don't mean much anymore and the 80 bonus points they yielded can evaporate like steam from a ruptured radiator.

"You just have to be able to capitalize on good runs and be able to win," he said. "If you finish fifth every week, that may or may not be good enough."

Said Johnson: "I certainly feel good about things."

Kurt Busch scripted the perfect Chase when he won the first playoff race at Loudon, N.H., in 2004, then calculatedly amassed seven more finishes of sixth or better. Assuming the lead for good when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was penalized for cursing on television after winning at Talladega, Busch survived a 42nd-place finish (caused by a blown engine) at Atlanta with three races left. And he endured a furious closing effort by Johnson — four victories in the last six — to win by eight points. Also, fortune or physics played a part in the finale when his right front wheel broke from his No. 97 Ford on Lap 91 and rolled just to the right of the pit wall as he entered for service, prompting a caution that allowed him to stay on the lead lap.

Stewart, a five-time race winner during the 2005 regular season, never won a Chase race but finished second three times and held off Edwards and Greg Biffle by 35 points.

"We just weren't brilliant like Jimmie was last year winning four of the last five weeks. I think we were just solid in 2005. … We just had a lot of consistency and I think all of us had a bad race that year that kind of evened everything out," Stewart said.

Johnson's 2006 title run obliterated the mold. He had finishes of 39th, 13th, 14th and 24th to begin the Chase before using another of his autumn blitzes to go from eighth in points after wrecking at Talladega to a comfortable 56-point margin over Matt Kenseth thanks to a win and four second-place finishes.

Johnson's followup was a snatch-and-grab of epic proportions. Teammate and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon led with three races remaining, but Johnson won four of the last five to overwhelm his teammate by 77 points.

"It was unbelievable. It really was," said Johnson, who won the last two races before the Chase the past two seasons. "We got on to some stuff at Fontana and then came (to Richmond) and won and went right into the Chase with a lot of speed and doing the right stuff."

Gordon's unrequited relationship with the Chase leaves him whimsical about how a fifth installment could play out. He and Johnson say they have deferred even considering the management of it until after the fifth race, Oct. 12 at Concord, N.C.

"Kyle Busch can go to New Hampshire and Kansas and crash both races, and all of a sudden this thing is wide open," Gordon said. "Or somebody hits on something and starts a streak that they haven't had before. I mean, we saw last year with Clint Bowyer, goes and wins the first race, and nobody expected that."

And that's exactly what's to be expected this time.

Inside line on

New Hampshire

Clint Bowyer, below, soared from 12th in the Chase for the Championship standings to fourth by leading 222 of 300 laps to win from the pole at New Hampshire last fall. Jeff Gordon rallied to finished second and again he needs a bounce. A three-time winner at New Hampshire, he has not reached Victory Lane this season. Jimmie Johnson, third in points, hasn't won at Loudon since sweeping there in 2003, but he has five top 10s in his past six.

Brant James, Times Staff Writer

>>SPRINT CUP

Point standings

Only these drivers are eligible for the championship; points were reset after last week's race at Richmond.

Driver Pts. Back

Kyle Busch 5,080—

Carl Edwards 5,050 30

J. Johnson 5,040 40

D. Earnhardt Jr. 5,010 70

Jeff Burton 5,010 70

Denny Hamlin 5,010 70

Clint Bowyer 5,010 70

Greg Biffle 5,000 80

Kevin Harvick 5,000 80

Tony Stewart 5,000 80

Matt Kenseth 5,000 80

Jeff Gordon 5,000 80

Today's race

Sylvania 300, 2 p.m., New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon.TV: Ch. 28

Chase script more like improvisation in Sprint Cup 09/13/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 13, 2008 8:52pm]

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