HE blew by Juan Pablo Montoya, then veered off-road to pass Boris Said. With his wife, Chandra, sitting by his side and holding on for dear life, reigning Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson mashed the gas pedal and shot across the grass, cruising over the hills and through the hollows of the Riverwalk Golf Club in San Diego until he reached the 4th hole, where he parked his cart next to Bobby Labonte's. For Johnson, golf had been a welcome distraction from the stress-filled run to his first Cup title last season, and here he was back on the course late this summer, striding confidently to the middle of the fairway, pitching wedge in hand.
"Watch this," Johnson said to Labonte, who along with several other NASCAR drivers was playing in Johnson's inaugural charity tournament. Ninety yards from the pin, Johnson swung and ... skulled the ball over the green. After digging a second rock out of his pocket, Johnson took another hack—and this time knocked it wide to the right, missing the putting surface again. "Well, Jimmie," said Labonte, the 2000 Cup champ, grinning, "you've always been consistent."
Yes, he has, especially in the Cup series. Since his rookie season in 2002, Johnson has amassed more wins (29) and more top 10 finishes (126) than any other driver on the circuit. So here's how he expects the 2007 Chase for the Cup, which begins on Sunday with the Sylvania 300 in Loudon, N.H., to play out. "The field in the Chase this year is going to be deeper than it's ever been," Johnson says. "There are seven or eight guys who have a legitimate chance to win it all. The one who can be in the top five week in and week out is going to wind up being the champion. We think we should be able to run up front in every race, so I really believe we can win it again."
The last driver to win back-to-back Cup championships was Jeff Gordon in 1997 and '98, and no driver in the Chase era, which began in 2004, has come close to repeating. After winning the title in '04, Kurt Busch wound up 10th the following season; Tony Stewart hoisted the Cup at the end of '05, but he didn't even qualify for the Chase in '06.
"What makes it so hard to repeat is that championship teams are reluctant to change because of the success they had," Busch says. "But in this series the technology changes so quickly and the edge you have over the competition disappears. You've got to be willing to adapt and mix things up, even if you are the defending champ. This is a hard thing to do in any sport."
Last season Stewart's bid to repeat was undone chiefly by what Cup drivers dread most: horrific luck. He lost valuable points at Michigan and New Hampshire when he got caught in accidents that weren't his fault. Then, during a practice run before the final race of the regular season, at Richmond, Stewart made an uncharacteristic mistake and crashed into the wall. Forced to use a backup car the next night, he never found the right setup, finished 18th and missed the Chase by 17 points.
Stewart's disaster in Richmond exemplifies the heavy price a driver sometimes pays for the slightest lapse in concentration. "One tiny mental mistake made in a split second over the four hours of the race can cost you the championship," says Jack Stark, a sports psychologist who has worked with several NASCAR teams, including Hendrick Motorsports. "NASCAR is the most mentally draining sport there is. In football and basketball you can take a play off here and there, but not in NASCAR.
"The season is also 40 weeks long," adds Stark, "and by the end of the year a lot of drivers are burned out. But Jimmie Johnson is different. He's proven that he performs best when his back is against the wall, and he always finds a way to turn it on in the Chase. He's as mentally strong as anyone in the sport."
LAST SEPTEMBER, at the urging of Chandra, Johnson discovered an escape from the pressures of racing: golf. Nearly every Monday afternoon during the 10-week Chase, Johnson, a beginner, played one of the Charlotte-area courses. For five hours he would lose himself in the pines, trying to forget about all things NASCAR. "I can always tell when the Chase is about to start because of that awful feeling I get in the pit of my stomach," Johnson says. "But playing golf definitely relaxed me. It really improved my state of mind."
Says Chandra, of her husband's weekly game, "I'm going to make sure he does the same thing this year."
What else does Johnson have to do to become the first repeat champion of the Chase era? Here are the five keys to winning the Cup.
1) Get a top 10 finish at New Hampshire
Last year Kyle Busch went into the first race of the Chase ranked fourth and believing he had as good a chance to win the title as any other driver. He was peaking at the ideal time—five top 10s in the previous six races—and had won the first event in Loudon two months earlier. But less than three laps after the green flag dropped, Busch collided with Jeff Green, and his Chevy was badly damaged. Busch ran only 276 laps and finished 38th. Just like that, his momentum disappeared and he wound up last in the Chase.
A driver can't win the championship at New Hampshire, but he can lose it there. "This year, if you have one really bad race, you're probably going to be out of it," says Martin Truex Jr., who this season qualified for his first Chase. "Someone is probably going to be in the top 10—or at least close to it—every week."
2) Don't hurt your own team
For a stretch this summer Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte spent race days holed up at Hendrick Motorsports headquarters in Charlotte, riveted to a television screen. The crew chiefs for Johnson and Gordon, respectively, Knaus and Letarte were each slapped with a six-week suspension by NASCAR for illegal modifications to the cars entered in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in Sonoma, Calif., on June 24. The drivers also were each docked 100 points in the standings, and not surprisingly, the performances of Johnson and Gordon fell dramatically in the absence of their pit bosses.
Now that Knaus and Letarte are back atop their pit boxes, NASCAR officials are watching them closely, which Knaus admits is making him a little gun-shy when it comes to trying anything exotic on Johnson's car. This is a real concern for every crew chief in the Chase. This year NASCAR has levied more penalties on crew chiefs than in any other season in the sport's 58-year history, and even the slightest reduction in points for a rules infraction over the next 10 weeks could knock a team out of title contention.
"I'm certainly a little more apprehensive," says Knaus. "NASCAR doesn't want anyone to be too successful, so I'll have to be careful. But the way the Chase has gone in the first three years is that teams typically take themselves out of it. They crash in practice, they have bad pit stops. These things cause teams to disintegrate from the inside. The key as a crew chief is to keep your guys together. That's where experience comes in, and that's where we have an advantage."
3) Master the Car of Tomorrow
Five of the 10 Chase races will be run with the CoT, so a consistently strong showing in the car with the funky rear wing and cumbersome handling is a must. The favorites in these events will be drivers from Hendrick (Johnson, Gordon and Kyle Busch) and Joe Gibbs Racing (Stewart and Denny Hamlin). Those two organizations dominated the first 11 CoT races—Hendrick took six checkered flags, Gibbs two—and no other team has proved it can stay with them.
"I'm real concerned about the CoT races," says Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion who drives for Roush Fenway Racing. "We've struggled in the Car of Tomorrow. Tony [Stewart], Jeff [Gordon] and Jimmie [Johnson] are going to be good in those races." Indeed, the consensus in the Cup garage is that the 2007 champ will come from among those three drivers.
4) Survive at Talladega
Make no mistake, the Big One will strike during the UAW-Ford 500 on Oct. 7 at Talladega. This race is regarded as the wild-card event of the Chase because of the multicar wrecks that occur in just about every race there. The engines are saddled with restrictor plates on the high-banked 2.66-mile superspeedway, so the cars run in tight packs at close to 200 mph—a surefire recipe for catastrophe. Drivers are happy if they can avoid the carnage and finish on the lead lap—two things, by the way, that Johnson has yet to accomplish in a Chase race at Talladega.
5) Create good luck
"Here are my five factors for winning the championship," Johnson says. "Luck, luck, luck, luck and luck."
"In our sport there's more you can't control than you can control," says Stewart. "You hit one piece of debris that you can't see and it could cost you the championship. You just have to hope nothing unfortunate happens."
The best way for a driver to beat the odds: consistently run in the lead pack. Of course, that's easier said than done, but it may be the difference-maker in the end.
IT'S LATE August, and Johnson is in his hometown of El Cajon, Calif., a dusty suburb of San Diego. "I'm recharging the battery before the Chase," he says, while sitting at an outdoor table at Los Panchos, his favorite haunt in high school. Minutes after he digs into a burrito, several patrons at surrounding tables start making calls on their cellphones. A half hour later about 100 fans are swarming Johnson, asking him to sign everything from menus to T-shirts to exposed flesh.
"I still can't believe the attention I get," Johnson says, as he squints under the noontime sun. "I'm continually blown away, but it motivates me too."
Johnson's Q rating has soared since he won the Cup last November, and now he has a chance to do something that only the icons of NASCAR have accomplished. If he defies recent history and repeats as champion, Johnson will join Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. as the only drivers to pull off that feat in the last 20 years.
Can JJ do it? The proof—like the thrill—will be in the Chase.
"JOHNSON FINDS A WAY TO TURN IT ON IN THE CHASE," SAYS STARK. "HE'S AS MENTALLY STRONG AS ANYONE IN THE SPORT."
SAYS JOHNSON, "HERE ARE MY FIVE FACTORS FOR WINNING THE CHAMPIONSHIP: LUCK, LUCK, LUCK, LUCK AND LUCK."
Setting the Pace
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PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES
HOT STUFF Back in El Cajon, Johnson, the Nextel circuit's big enchilada with six victories this season, savors the hometown vibe.
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KENT HORNER/GETTY IMAGES
PLAYING THROUGH Chandra (left) urged her husband to take up golf in 2006, and Jimmie made the game a part of his Chase routine.
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INFIGHTING One driver who could get in the way of a Johnson repeat is teammate Gordon (left), the last man to win back-to-back Cups.