Commentary

Johnson's run reminiscent of Gordon's famed season of 1998

Jimmie Johnson is on an incredible roll. How incredible? We haven't seen anything like it since his mentor Jeff Gordon's career-defining 1998 season, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: November 11, 2007, 11:14 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Barring a major problem next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Jimmie Johnson is going to win his second consecutive championship.

That rare accomplishment is happening for one simple reason. Johnson is driving like the man he has to beat -- Jeff Gordon.

Johnson's 2007 season looks strikingly similar to the amazing year Gordon had in 1998.

Johnson earned his fourth consecutive victory in the Checker Auto Parts 500 on Sunday. And who was the last man to win four straight? Gordon in 1998.

The victory at Phoenix International Raceway gives Johnson 10 wins this season. And who was the last man with double-figure victories in a season? Gordon with 13 wins in 1998.

Greg Biffle, who finished second Sunday, thought the days of double-digit victories in this series were over.

"I never would have thought it possible," Biffle said. "We won six in 2005, and Kasey Kahne won six last year. That's a lot to win in a season. I thought after '05 that maybe [I would] get eight the next year, but 10 is a lot of wins."

Biffle won twice that next year.

Any reasonable hopes Gordon had of winning his fifth championship ended on the 1-mile Phoenix oval when he struggled to finish 10th. Johnson is 86 points in front of Gordon heading to the final race.

"We're kind of where we were last year going to Homestead," said Johnson, who had a 63-point lead after the Phoenix event last season. "We just have to go to Homestead and be smart and see how it shakes out.

"It's going to be a stressful race weekend. I just have to try to keep my mind clear and worry about the things I can control."

No one in this century has won back-to-back Cup titles. Who was the last man to do it? Gordon in 1997-98.

As it was for Gordon then, Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team are unstoppable now. Even Johnson can't explain it.

"I don't have a clue," he said. "I just go out and do my job. I'm lucky to be in cars that are capable of winning races and have a pit crew that can put me in that position. I'm just as shocked as anyone watching this happen."

Crew chief Chad Knaus has seen it all before. He was a crew member for the No. 24 Chevy when Gordon dominated the series in the late 1990s.

"I think this team has some of that same dynamic that we had back then," Knaus said. "Everything falls your way, and you feel like you have some magic going. If you could bottle it and sell it, you would make millions.'

Johnson still can do something Gordon didn't do. A victory next weekend would make Johnson the first driver in NASCAR's modern era to win five consecutive races.

Johnson has won 11 Chase races in his career. No one else has won more than four. He will clinch the 2007 championship with a finish of 18th or better at Homestead.

"It's a nice and comfortable place to be in," Johnson said. "But we still have to go run 400 miles. If we don't run the full distance, we're in trouble. We'll go down there and keep it simple."

Johnson quite simply is the best driver on the best team in NASCAR. It wasn't that long ago that Gordon was in the same spot, not that's he's bad now.

Gordon has 29 top-10s this season, tying the NASCAR record. But top-10s aren't good enough when your teammate is going for it and earning victories.

For the second consecutive race, Johnson pushed it in the final laps, taking some dangerous chances to get the victory. But he doesn't see it as risky business.

It's a nice and comfortable place to be in. But we still have to go run 400 miles. If we don't run the full distance, we're in trouble. We'll go down there and keep it simple.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"I need every point I can get," Johnson said. "I know how good Jeff is and how good his team is. I can't let my guard down. If I don't try to get every position I can every week, I'll get beat."

Gordon is getting beat by the man he brought to Cup racing. Gordon persuaded team owner Rick Hendrick to hire Johnson, and -- as Johnson put it -- Gordon "put skins in the game" by becoming co-owner of the No. 48 Chevy.

Gordon also is the man who pushed Johnson to the top.

"He has been a big part of my success," Johnson said. "Jeff is the guy who gave me my shot. He always has been open and honest with me. He kept me between the lines and helped me understand the parameters of the sport, making sure I didn't get off track."

In many ways, the pupil has become the teacher.

"Jeff and I have some common interests, and we're friends," Johnson said. "But I'm not Jeff Gordon."

Maybe not, Jimmie, but you could have fooled us.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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