Commentary

Gordon wondering how he will get past Johnson ... in the future

If you think Jeff Gordon's busy thinking about how to overcome an 86-point lead at Homestead, think again. He's busy trying to figure out how to beat Jimmie Johnson next year, writes David Newton.

Updated: November 12, 2007, 4:42 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Jeff Gordon wasn't thinking about this week's season finale when he left Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday. He wasn't thinking about the time he'll get to spend with his new daughter during the offseason.

He was thinking about what it will take to beat Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson next year.

And the year after that.

"Obviously we've got to find a way to get the performance up if we're going to compete with these guys in the future," he said. "To me right now it's not about the championship. It's really about the offseason and next year and getting ourselves where we need to be.

"I guess I've got to change. I've got to figure out how to go faster, I know that. What I'm doing now ain't getting it done."

Nobody is getting it done when it comes to Johnson, who heads to Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC) with four consecutive wins and 10 this season.

He has an 86-point lead over Gordon and, barring a hurricane or some other natural disaster, will become the first driver to win consecutive Nextel Cup titles since Gordon in 1997 and '98.

Were it not for some misfortune in 2004, when he finished eight points behind Kurt Busch, Johnson would be going for his third title in the four-year history of the Chase.

"It seems like at the end they get something extra from somewhere," said Martin Truex Jr., who finished seventh on Sunday.

Said Denny Hamlin, who finished 16th, "You can't touch those guys right now. They run as hard as they want to. It is going to be tough on anybody to catch the guys that can run 75 percent to 85 percent during the race, and then when they need to, turn it up."

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesChad Knaus, left, and Jimmie Johnson have hit on a winning formula 10 times in 2007.

If NASCAR wants to tweak the Chase to make it more competitive for everybody else, keep Johnson out. He's driving at such a high level that he's making Gordon, a four-time champion, question his own style.

"To me it's always a combination of a great driver and a great team," Gordon said. "Sometimes it seems like it's easy to find. Trust me, it's not. When you find that, man, I tell you what, you just think this stuff is easy.

"And they're making it look real easy."

Johnson has a series-best 33 wins since his first full Cup season in 2002. Eleven of those have come over the final 10 races since the Chase began in 2004.

Matt Kenseth, who won the last non-Chase title in 2003, hasn't seen anything like it.

"They can do that every week," he said. "They're that good. They're just unbelievably good. They're as good as any group I've seen, including Jeff in his heyday."

Added Kenseth, "They're so good, I don't know how you put yourself in position to win like that every week."

Johnson is so hot that some are comparing him to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who won three Super Bowls in a four-year period and are the NFL's dominant team again this year.

"I wish I understood more about football," Johnson said with a laugh. "That's why my wife tells me. I know Brady's hot, and they've had great success. But we're just doing our thing."

Johnson's thing is so good that Gordon and everybody else in the Chase are losing ground with top-10 finishes.

"Apparently, Jimmie's raised the bar," said Ken Howes, the vice president for competition at Hendrick Motorsports.

Johnson doesn't plan to stop here. Less than an hour after Sunday's win he was talking about winning a fifth-straight race, even though a more conservative approach might be the best way to secure the title.

So was crew chief Chad Knaus.

"We unloaded here on Friday and we had some stuff that was a little bit different and we tried it," he said. "It showed some promise. We didn't quite think it fit the situation we were needing, so we changed it before we started racing.

"This morning we did some stuff that was a little bit different that we hadn't done in the past in the car. So we're always trying to push and make our race car faster."

That's what makes this so frustrating for Gordon, who had a 68-point advantage four races ago. He has access to the same information as Johnson, but can't make it work.

"He just uses the brakes a lot different getting it in the corner," Gordon said. "When and how he gets on the throttle. They set the car up much different. Every time he's blistering fast I say, 'Put that setup in,' and I'm absolutely terrible."

That frustrates Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte.

"From the outside you would think it's very easy," he said. "You just put in a fast setup and slow setup. It's like football offense. Some quarterbacks are good in a West Coast offense and some aren't.

Everybody's had their turn out there, and we've been the team that's been the most consistent over there and been able to battle for the championship every year. I love that. I love that we've got staying power. We can continue to do that.

-- Chad Knaus

"That's the same way you have it here. You can't take Jimmie Johnson's setup and just plug it into Jeff's car and expect him to go out and run like Jimmie's running."

Johnson doesn't believe anybody needs to change their driving style to beat him, particularly Gordon.

"I've changed my driving style to go more his direction," Johnson said. "So maybe it's somewhere in the middle where we need to be. He's a very smart driver."

Smart might not be good enough to beat Johnson now or in the future. He and Knaus have proved to be the class of the garage, as dominant as anybody in the modern era of the sport. They've been in position to win the title every year since 2002, whether they've been competing against Gordon or Busch or Tony Stewart.

"Everybody's had their turn out there, and we've been the team that's been the most consistent over there and been able to battle for the championship every year," Knaus said. "I love that. I love that we've got staying power. We can continue to do that."

That's why Gordon already is looking ahead to next year.

"We have to find those ingredients that work for me," he said. "But hey, maybe this is as good as it gets for us."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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