California Cool: Jimmie Johnson staying focused and game in the garage of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
For all the talk that NASCAR's most dominant racer gets for being a "vanilla" personality, once he's strapped in the driver's seat for a grueling race, Jimmie Johnson is usually set to make a memorable Sunday afternoon drive on any given circuit.
Be it the relatively smooth confines of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., a track oriented more towards the drivers' comforts than the white knuckle action of Bristol, or Talladega, or the nighttime fireworks at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson usually finds a way to finish near or at the top of the race standings.
He does this as frequently as Wilford Brimley asks millions of Americans to "check their blood sugar" and to "check it often."
Detractors of the 35-year-old El Cajon, Calif. native often run into the case of wishful thinking when hoping for trouble to beset the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet team.
To put it in layman terms, it's almost like watching a movie and hoping for a different ending, even though you've probably watched it about 10 times.
While the 2010 racing season has seen occasional gaffes by the usually steady, consistent group led by crew chief Chad Knaus, they've lived up to their standards as the team to beat in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
Sure, Johnson had a rather inconsistent regular season, with four DNFs (did not finish) interlaced with five wins prior to the Chase. Yes, he had two particular stretches where he finished 10th or worse, from the Talladega spring race to Charlotte's 600 miler, as well as a seven race period from Daytona's July event to Bristol in August.
However, when it comes to the most crucial time of the year, when a team has to absolutely be on its toes and ready to bounce back from adversity, the No. 48 team is coming through in the clutch like Peyton Manning negotiating and leading his Indianapolis Colts team in a two minute drill for the win.
Even after Johnson's dubious kickoff race for the Chase at Loudon, NH, where he placed 25th, his immediate rise up the point standings was almost expected.
Finishes of first at Dover, second at Kansas, and a pair of thirds at Fontana and Charlotte have boosted the four-time championship winning squad to yet another points lead in the Chase, 41 markers ahead of title rival contender Denny Hamlin.
For those hoping for a rather exciting finish down the stretch for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title, while there's still plenty of racing left, if past track performance is an indicator, then Don Meredith's old Monday Night Football song will ring true for Johnson's rivals:
Turn out the lights, the party's over...
With Martinsville, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami hosting the final five races of the Chase, the only obstacle between Johnson and an unprecedented, fifth consecutive Cup champion is...well, quite honestly, himself.
His track records at these venues are steady and consistent, much like the way he's driven throughout his Cup career. Witness:
- Martinsville has to definitely be Johnson's "house," scoring six victories in 17 previous starts, which comprise of 11 additional top-five finishes and 16 total top-10's.
- Talladega is relatively kind to Team 48, with an average finish of 9.7, including his spring 2006 win, three other top-fives and seven total top-10 results.
- At Texas, Johnson boasts an 8.8 average finish in his past 14 starts, including a victory in the fall 2007 race, as well as six additional top-fives and 10 total top-10's.
- Phoenix is certainly a sunny spot for the "California Kid," logging in four wins, nine top-fives and 12 top-10's, computing to an average finish of 11th in his 14 previous starts.
- Homestead-Miami Speedway is Johnson's weakest track, with three top-fives and six top-10's in his previous in nine starts, translating to a somewhat human 19.3 average finishing position.
Now that 41 point lead over Denny Hamlin sounds a lot closer, even to the most loyal pessimist around. However, barring a Sam Hornish, Jr. like incident, such as the case in last year's race at Texas, the final five races appear to be a coronation in the making for NASCAR's newest "king."
Anything short of a top-five at Martinsville and Phoenix would be somewhat disappointing for the Lowe's crew, as they're this team's two strongest tracks.
This group has to certainly be the pre-race favorites at these facilities, just knowing how to get the job done at flat-banked, finesse tracks that require a bit of patience, facets that define Johnson's game.
Although Johnson has a stellar average finishing position at Talladega, almost every team, including the Lowe's unit, has to be somewhat concerned with the unknown elements that are presented at a plate racing venue.
Drivers jockey for position every lap, pushing and bumpdrafting off each other as if Justin Bieber's signing autographs at a record store. Certainly, Johnson and Knaus have to perhaps resort to a conservative approach at the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
Texas and Homestead-Miami are somewhat solid tracks, with the Lone Star State being the stronger of the two battle grounds for Johnson and his team.
After the incredible late race comeback finish of third at Charlotte, following an early spin that relegated "JJ" to the tail end of the lead lap, there's reason to believe that the No. 48 Chevrolet will be among the class of the field.
Quad-oval, 1.5-mile facilities are another strong feature to NASCAR's current dynasty, and it'd not be a surprise to see them nab another solid finish at the Ft. Worth speedway.
That leaves Homestead-Miami as Johnson's "Achilles' Heal," but usually by the time that the circuit reaches the warm confines of South Florida, so aren't the hopes for any title contender not named Jimmie Johnson.
The No. 48 team usually finds themselves already in a position to clinch the title by essentially just being there to start the race and even if they aren't, a conservative finish is usually suffice for them to capture a title.
Unless all the regular season inconsistencies creep up on the No. 48 team or how much effort Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, or any of the other Chase contenders put forth between now and Homestead, the No. 48's "B game" will just be enough to capture a history-making fifth title.
Drivers like Johnson come in cycles, but their greatness is usually "once in a lifetime."
While he's certainly not a fan favorite and someone who'll have the adoration and awes of a driver such as teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, or even the Busch brothers, respect is the name of the game for one of the sport's classiest drivers and teams.
He who simply find more ways to win, especially when it's all on the line for bragging rights and trophies.
Author's Note: If you'd like to check out more of my works about racing, including exclusive interviews with some of today's hottest stars and tomorrow's promising prospects, check out my blog, "The Podium Finish," where you can find works like this and more!