Are Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart Peaking Too Early?

Kelly CrandallSenior Writer IJune 2, 2009

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 05:  (L-R) Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, and Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Toyota, arrive at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria on December 5, 2008 in New York City.  (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Country star Kenny Rogers once sang "You got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em," and the way things have turned out recently in NASCAR, I'd say that's a pretty good philosophy. 

Thanks to the Chase for the Championship, the Sprint Cup season is now split into two parts.

The first 26 races are considered the regular season and the final 10 races are about the playoffs, called the Chase.

Every team has learned that the first 26 races are all about winning and making sure you're in the top 12 in points when the cutoff ends at Richmond in September. 

The regular season is also about making sure you have everything together for the Chase and all your gremlins are behind you.

It's come down to peaking at the right time.

The first half of 2008 was all about Kyle Busch. He dominated and won everything he sat in and was the Sprint Cup points leader heading into Chase race No. 1 in New Hampshire.

Busch had set a torrid pace and racked up 80 bonus points, 80 more than most every other Chaser and 30 more than his nearest competitor, Carl Edwards.

Then the Chase began and those 80 points became as extinct as the old race car.

Next to mechanical issues, his team folded and were not as dominate as they once were.

Busch ended the year 10th in points, all his hard work during the regular season was all for not.

And the man that peaked at the right time won the championship.

Jimmie Johnson and his team led by Chad Knaus, did not get off to the best start in 2008 and at one point were 13th in the standings. 

Instead of panicking they regrouped and used the 26 race season as a test season, preparing for the final 10 events.

As the Chase got closer, Johnson got stronger and began ripping off wins.

Then during the Chase, the No. 48 Lowe's team easily rolled to their third straight championship.

Other drivers also folded before the Chase began.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third in the points standings for the first half of the year, however after winning at Michigan in June, the 88 lost their mojo instead of picking up more.

He finished 12th in points.

Then there was Edwards who ran well all year long, for all 36 Sprint Cup races and finished second in points. Where he was most of the year.

Edwards was using the formula that used to win championships: consistency.

The key word being used to.

The Chase doesn't care what you're capable of in the regular season. It wants you to show what you can do for the final 10.

Just ask Jeff Gordon.

In 2007 nearly everyone had inscribed Gordon's name on his fifth career championship. 

Heading into the Chase Gordon has amounted 21 top 10s, 15 top fives, four wins, and had the point lead.

He lost it before the first Chase race was even run.

Gordon's teammate and protegee, Johnson, won the season championship after going from sixth in points to the lead, because he had more wins than Gordon did during the first 26 races.

Johnson knew all he had to do was hold his Chase spot and he would be rewarded when they reset the standings.

He won four straight races in the Chase and took home the title.

NASCAR no longer cares about the season long consistency that was once the thing that would crown it's Series champion. 

It's now just about 10 races.

Which brings us once again to Johnson and Stewart.

Recently a NASCAR fan said to me that he didn't think that Johnson would win his fourth straight championship.

I looked at him like he had four heads.

Then he talked about how Johnson is off to one of his best starts of the season and that it may hurt him down the stretch.

This off course got me thinking back to Mr. Rogers.

Johnson has racked up his second win of the season with his dominating performance in the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover.

He moved up to third in points and has had a very solid start of the season, no longer running 30th at tracks that he normally wins at.

Just think of Las Vegas last season, when Knaus said they were flat out embarrassed.

But this year media members are already talking about how he will continue to dominate and take home the title in Homestead.

To do that he'll have to battle the surprising new points leader, Stewart.

Stewart has never held the point lead this early in the season and even though it was a non-points event, he won the Sprint All-Star race just a few weeks ago.

Something else that Stewart rarely does this early.

That's because Stewart also knows the prime time to peak.

He normally doesn't get hot and make a charge until the summer begins which marks the second half of the season.

In 2005, the year that he won his second championship, he didn't win his first race until June 26 at Sonoma, then won his second a week later in Daytona.

Win number three came at Loudon two weeks after that and numbers three and four were two weeks after Loudon when he won back-to-back races at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen.

So far in 2009, Stewart is doing the complete opposite by showing his stuff this soon. 

Right now, the two most recent Sprint Cup Champions are the hottest drivers and the hottest topics in the NASCAR world.

But will they fold later in the season?

What drivers are holding em and just waiting until the Chase? 


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