Carl’s parade rained on by JJ’s late surge
Posted: Monday, October 27, 2008 6:45 pm
By: By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — Hey, NASCAR. Got any other tweaks that might actually bring a little suspense to what is supposed to the most exciting part of the season?
Jimmie Johnson has turned the current Cup Chase into a laugher. Judging by all those empty seats at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, most fans have already turned their attention to 2009.
Maybe the folks that brought you yellow flags for “debris on the track” can sneak a couple of cement blocks into Johnson’s car. Maybe they can get some troopers to set up a speed trap that only targets the No. 48. Maybe they can send him out in a REAL Chevrolet Impala.
The way things stand now, they might as well set up the ballroom, warm up that banquet-circuit chicken and shine up the big trophy for Johnson.
Even on a day when Carl Edwards cruised to victory in the Pep Boys Auto 500, the star of the show was the laid-back Californian who has essentially locked up his third straight Cup championship with three races still to go.
Even with a rare mistake — he was caught going a bit too fast on pit road (maybe NASCAR did take the advice about the speed traps) — Johnson roared back from 30th place to take the runner-up spot behind Edwards.
“We just fought and fought and fought,” Johnson said. “We leave here very happy. It’s almost like a win.”
It sure seemed that way to Edwards, even though he pulled away to win by more than 2 1/2 seconds. While celebrating in victory lane, a TV reporter asked if he knew who finished second.
“Who?” Edwards said.
Johnson, came the reply
“Are you kidding me?” Edwards shot back, incredulous. “Well, you’ve rained on my parade. I could have done without that one. That’s unbelievable. He does a great job.”
Johnson sure stretched the bounds of believability after crew chief Chad Knaus gambled on a late pit stop to change all four tires. His driver returned to the track in 11th place with eight laps remaining.
“That was just a great call, a risky call, but it just goes to show that Chad is out there racing,” Johnson said. “He’s not trying to ride around and get points. He’s out there to earn them. He called me in for tires and told me to put my cape on and off we went.”
One by one, Johnson took down those ahead of him — Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth among them. Finally, he set his sights on Denny Hamlin, who led 56 laps late in the race before being passed by Edwards on a restart.
“Jimmie just put a show on there at the end,” said Steve Letarte, crew chief for Gordon. “It was pretty impressive.”
Johnson saved his best move for the final lap. Coming through the last big sweeping turn on the 1.54-mile trioval, he closed in on Hamlin’s bumper, then went high. The rear wheels on the No. 11 car drifted up the banking, before Hamlin got the tempestuous car under control and avoided a spinout.
Johnson kept from wiping out himself and sped on by as though he had places to be, awards to collect. His commanding lead in the points — 149 over Biffle coming into the race — actually got bigger. He’s now 183 ahead of Edwards as Biffle slipped to third.
“I guess they put on tires and went for it,” Edwards said. “That’s pretty amazing. He’s a heck of a competitor, but he’s also the first guy to congratulate you when you win. In a way, that just makes him even harder to beat. He’s one of those guys who does it right. We’ve got to hope that something happens … and he loses a couple of hundred points.”
But after Sunday, don’t count on it.
Johnson has been quite the closer, the stock-car equivalent of Mariano Rivera. He’s won four of the last nine races, finished second in two others and been inside the top 10 every time during that stretch. In the seven Chase races, he’s taken the checkered flag second, fifth, first, ninth, sixth, first and second, leaving everyone else in the dust.
“They are a good team, man,” said teammate and Chase rival Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 11th in Atlanta and dropped 419 point behind Johnson. “They are going to win the championship. They are the best team in this sport. They have been the best team for three years.”
No argument there.
“Carl is doing his job. He really is,” said Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and another member of the powerful Hendrick Motorsports team. “He’s doing what he needs to do. But that No. 48, they’re just tough.”
Also give credit to Knaus for making the call to change all four tires on the final stop.
“He has one of the best feels for how a race will go and what he needs to do,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “He never flinches. I would never be able to make that call — never.”
NASCAR devised the Chase playoff system in hopes of adding a little drama to its fall races, when many casual fans turn their attention to football.
It’s not working out so well. Even on a warm, sunny day, the turnout in Atlanta was estimated at 80,000 — some 45,000 short of capacity. There were gaping holes of empty seats on the front straightaway, perhaps an indication of how Johnson has sucked all the drama out of this season.
Which is just the way he likes it. Let others duke out in the garage, as Edwards and Kevin Harvick did a few weeks ago, or moan about NASCAR’s ever-changing rules, as Tony Stewart seems to do every time he opens his mouth.
“I can’t be like Stewart and cause a hurricane. It just doesn’t work for me,” Johnson said. “I race people with respect. I try to settle it on the track. I’m no pushover by any means. That’s just my style.”
There’s even a mathematical chance Johnson could clinch the title next week in Texas. If he leaves there up 323 points over the competition, he would need only to start the final two races to become the first driver since Cale Yarborough (1976-78) to win three consecutive championships.
A long shot, yes. But not out of the question with this guy.