RICHMOND, Va. — The forecast for Jimmie Johnson's next 10 races could hardly be brighter.
For Tony Stewart, storms, storms, storms.
Johnson, the two-time defending Sprint Cup champion, enters the Chase for the Championship with consecutive wins after holding off Stewart in Sunday's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Johnson also entered the NASCAR playoffs last season with two straight wins, then won four more times to become the first driver to repeat as Cup champ in a decade.
Now Johnson begins the Chase on Sunday at Loudon, N.H., just 40 points behind leader and former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Busch, who dominated much of the 26-race regular season. Johnson seeks to join Cale Yarborough as the only driver to win three straight titles. Johnson enjoys the juggernaut status, especially considering the timing, but fears it at the same time.
"I'm trying to show up at next week's race scared," said Johnson after his fourth win this season. "When you re-rack this thing with 10 races to go … you just never know what is going to happen, so I just want to show up worried about all 11 of them and do my job."
Denny Hamlin secured his Chase berth by finishing third, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Mark Martin.
Points are equalized at 5,000 for the top 12 drivers after 26 races, with 10 points added to each driver's total per win so far. Busch, who was 15th Sunday, will begin the Chase as the top seed with 5,080 points.
Busch, standing near Johnson when he was asked if he considered himself the favorite, mouthed "yes," later clarified he was being sarcastic, but said he'd feel that way right now if had Johnson's momentum.
As for Stewart, Sunday seems unlikely to be positive without some soothing. Stewart will leave Joe Gibbs Racing after this season to drive for a team he co-owns, and the verbal sparring he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli often used as creative tension the past 10 years sounded a lot like a relationship coming apart.
Stewart, winless this season, pitted as the leader under caution with 34 laps left but exited behind Johnson, prompting an angry assessment of his crew over team radio.
Stewart pulled ahead of Johnson to lead two laps with 10 remaining, but Johnson eased back ahead. When his spotter issued the customary "five to go," Stewart responded, "I got it." Zipadelli apparently hadn't heard the exchange and repeated the message. "I (expletive) got it," Stewart screamed.
Stewart berated his team again after finishing 0.365 seconds behind Johnson, prompting Zipadelli to respond, "Great attitude, Smoke," and told his longtime partner he had earlier lost positions on pit road by stalling his No. 20 Toyota.
"The difference is I got mine back," retorted Stewart, who sat on pit wall alone after the race.
Johnson might soon get his championship trophy back. Whether Stewart can get back what he might have lost is another question.