Despite lack of wins, Johnson still driver to beat in NASCAR's Chase

Jimmie Johnson leads the Sprint Cup points race. He's completed a personal-best 99.6 percent of laps this season, and his average finish of 9.8 is the second-highest of his incomparable career.

So why, entering Saturday's Pistachios-Are-Best-In-Ice-Cream 400 at Richmond International Raceway, is the NASCAR world buzzing that the five-time defending Cup champion is more vulnerable than the Big 12?

Two words: checkered flags.


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Johnson's sole victory this year was at Talladega in April. A full-time Cup driver since 2002, he has never reached Labor Day with fewer than two wins.

Johnson's current drought, 17 races, is his second-longest, the worst in a single season. He went the last eight races of 2002, his rookie year, and first 11 of 2003 without visiting Victory Lane.

Meanwhile, four drivers have won three or more times this year: Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.

So with the 12-driver Chase playoff field set to be determined after Saturday's Richmond event, is Johnson, indeed, on the verge of relinquishing his title?

"We're just having a terrible year," he told reporters Tuesday after finishing second to Gordon at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Johnson was not serious.

"Our viewpoint is just the reality inside of our race team," he continued. "And very little outside discussion or talk influences what's going on in our minds. We know the reality of our race team and if we're a contender or not, and I feel we're building in that direction and we're getting stronger each week.

"We still have weak points. We still are not qualifying like we need to, and at some point in the race we seem to have the car pretty far off. But the good side of that is Chad and Greg find a way to fix it."

That's crew chief Chad Knaus and engineer Greg Ives, integral cogs in a machine that's produced the greatest dynasty in NASCAR history.

Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, understands more than anyone the enormity of five straight titles.

"I think everybody recognizes how strong they are, and that you can never count them out," he said after his Atlanta victory. "Those guys are running really strong right now as well."

Before Johnson, no driver had won more than three straight Cup championships. He's prevailed by margins small and large and adjusted to late-season pit-crew overhauls.

In short, there's little, if anything, Johnson hasn't encountered during his record run. Moreover, his dominance of the 10-race Chase defies racing logic.

In 70 playoff starts over seven years, Johnson has 19 wins, 40 top-fives and 54 top-10s. Nineteen wins! That's more than Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Danny Hamlin have in their respective careers.

"That's what I was trying to get you guys to laugh a little bit about, the bad year and all that," Johnson said during Tuesday's obligatory couch session with reporters in Atlanta. "As time goes on and I have more experience and go through this more, (I'm) certainly having more fun along the way, too."

Neither fun nor experience assure Johnson of a sixth championship come November's finale in Florida. Busch, Harvick, Carl Edwards and the rejuvenated Gordon — the 40-year-old's last title was in 2001 — are capable of displacing the No. 48 team.

"May not have had the dominance that we'd seen before in recent years, but it's still Jeff Gordon," Johnson said Tuesday. "And it's so cool to race that hard with him. And even if I did come in second, it's OK."

Second was OK because Tuesday was not the Chase. Until proven otherwise, the Chase is Jimmie Johnson's world, and everyone else is a spectator.

"We know," he said, "we've got a very good chance of winning the championship."

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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