It sucks to be No. 1 in 2010.
A Rolodex of call girls replaced Tiger Woods’ roar. Roger Federer’s simply faded. Is Jimmie Johnson the next top athlete – yes, we said athlete – to fall off track?
“I’d tell him to watch out,” joked Federer earlier this month at the U.S. Open. “Everyone falls every now and then.”
After four straight Sprint Cup championships, though, the wheels seem a long way from falling off the No. 48 car.
“Is it in the stars?” asked Tony Stewart earlier this week. “I don’t know about all that. If I knew the future I’d be a bookie in Vegas.”
Maybe in Vegas he’d have a better chance of winning. Johnson is still the one to beat entering the Chase, even if he hasn’t had his most dominant regular season.
“Vulnerable, vulnerable? That’s all anyone is asking,” Stewart said. “I don’t know where that’s coming from.”
Perhaps it’s because Johnson has the most DNFs of any Chase qualifier headed into Sunday’s race at New Hampshire. Or maybe it’s those six finishes outside the top 31. Either way, JJ sits exactly where he did a year ago — 10 points behind the leader entering the 10-race playoff. And that seems just fine with him.
“We've had two good runs going into the Chase, my guys are ready, I'm ready,” said Johnson, who, oh by the way, had four top-three finishes, including two wins, at the eight Chase tracks that hosted regular-season races. “We have got our mojo back and we are looking forward to it.”
So too is Denny Hamlin, who won a career-high six races this season and overtook Kevin Harvick for the points lead earlier this month. Don’t expect a hot start from the doe-eyed 29-year-old, though. After four unsuccessful postseasons, Hamlin knows just about everything on how to lose the Chase.
“We want to get through these first three [Chase] races,” Hamlin said. “We want to play damage control. I think we have an awesome shot if we do that.”
Hamlin may be racing with the lead, but not the pressure. The points-leader has won the Chase just once (Tony Stewart in 2005) since its inception in 2004, so the target’s still tattooed on Johnson’s back. Even if the rest of the field feels like they’re a little closer to hitting it.
"I'm not concerned about what people think of my race team and where I'm at and what kind of threat we are to the championship,” said a semi-steamed Johnson. “I'm just more concerned about going out and getting the damn job done.''
That job seems a heck of a lot more challenging this fall. At least if you ask Carl Edwards, who sits in ninth place in the standings and has 14 top-10 finishes – the same as Johnson. Edwards has been the most consistent driver over the last nine races, never finishing outside the top 12. His average finish of 5.5 in the span is the highest of any Chase competitor.
And don’t count him out just because he hasn’t reached victory lane. It’s completely possible to go winless and still win the Chase.
“Yeah, it could happen. Will it? That’s another question,” Edwards said. “We still want to win races … but if we win [the Chase] without a [single] win, you bet I’ll still take it.”
He’ll have to take it away from Johnson, who seems to elevate to an unmatched level of self-focus and mental clarity this time of year, regardless of his showing during regular season.
“I think it's one of the most open fields we've had ... it's not anything Jimmie has or hasn't done, I just think all of us are catching up to him in a way," said Hamlin, who then added, "but, Jimmie’s still the one to beat. End of story."
It seems everyone has that much figured out.
“If we knew how to beat him, we would’ve done it by now," said Stewart, the last man before JJ to win the Chase. "That's the part we're still trying figure out.”
Johnson still in line for No. 5
It sucks to be No. 1 in 2010.