HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns

September 17, 2007

Johnson is the favorite to win the Chase again

By Jesse Menden

Way back when the NASCAR season began in February, I made the not-so-bold prediction that Jimmy Johnson would repeat as a champion in 2007.

Over seven months later, Johnson is in position to do that. He grabbed the top seed heading into the Chase for the Cup after his win at Richmond, and has to be considered the favorite.

The Chase is basically his to lose, and he has turned it on at the right time. After a couple of recent hiccups at the USG Sheetrock 400 and the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, JJ has finished worse than fifth only once in the last six races.

He entered Sunday’s Cup-opener at New Hampshire winning the past two races. Two of his series-high six wins this season have come at Martinsville and Atlanta, two tracks where the Cup will be run. He also had a second place finish at Talledega.

Not to mention, JJ has the best organization and crew chief behind him in Chad Knaus.

But winning the championship, especially two years in a row, is not that easy and there are several drivers who will challenge Johnson.

Jeff Gordon will be one of those drivers. After having nine top-five finishes in the first 11 races of the season, including three wins, Gordon shot to the top of the points standings and held it all the way up until the beginning of the Chase.

The four-time champ has struggled recently, finishing no better than 19th in the previous three races leading up to Richmond. But in my opinion, he has just been cruising along, waiting for the Chase to come around. He showed some signs of life at Richmond when he led for a good portion of the race. That was a good warm-up race for the playoffs.

The driver of the No. 24 Chevy has two wins and two second place finishes at the Chase tracks in 2007.

Kurt Busch is another one of those drivers that could give Johnson some trouble.

To say Busch is on a hot streak in an understatement. In the last nine races leading up to the Chase, Busch was no worse than 11th in any of those races.

The most impressive part is he won two of those races, claiming victories at the Pennsylvania 500 and the 3M Performance 400. If crew chief Pat Tryson can keep Busch and the team going, Johnson and the others better look out.

But there are a few things going against him. With the exception of Talledega, Busch did not perform well at any of the tracks in the Chase in 2007. In his defense, those races all occurred before he got hot. However, historically, he does not do well at most of the 10 remaining tracks.

He is also the only Dodge in the Chase. It might be a little tough for him up against all of those big, bad Chevys.

Carl Edwards is another one of those drivers who has been on fire lately. In the four events leading up to Richmond, Edwards had four top-10 finishes, and a win at the Sharpie 500. He also had an awesome car and a lead before his engine let go at Richmond.

The driver of the No. 99 Ford has been consistent all season and could be near the top at the end. Remember, this isn’t the first time Edwards has been in the Chase.

Before he had that disappointing 2006 season, he was within points of the championship in 2005.

Outside of his third-place finish at Dover, however, Edwards was not very impressive at the Chase tracks this season. But historically, he is very solid at Atlanta, Charlotte, Homestead, and Phoenix, so there is a good chance Edwards will have something to say about Johnson trying to repeat as the champion.

Those three drivers are the most likely to challenge Johnson, in my opinion. You probably noticed that Tony Stewart is not on that list. I left him off the list because I don’t like how he has performed as of late, but if he heats up, nobody can stop him.

Kenseth is another who could threaten. He usually is the most consistent driver in the circuit (which is needed for the Chase), but has only eight top 5 finishes this season and just two in the past 13 races. He is not going the right way heading into the Chase.

It will tough for any driver to compete with Johnson, but I hope a couple of them can so it comes down to the last race at Homestead.