Johnson's season bordering on NASCAR's greatest

How great is Jimmie Johnson's season if he wins it all? What kind of a driver is Tony Stewart, really? Go Door-To-Door with Marty Smith and he'll tell you.

Updated: November 14, 2006, 10:37 PM ET
By Marty Smith | Special to ESPN.com

If, in fact, Jimmie Johnson shifts the No. 48 Chevrolet into Bachman-Turner Overdrive and takes care of business (awful, I know …) Sunday in the South Florida sunshine, his 2006 performance will rank among the greatest in NASCAR history.

Door-To-Door
with Marty Smith
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Daytona 500. Nextel All-Star Challenge. Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. Nextel Cup championship.

A Grand Slam of sorts. How often do we hear drivers say, "I want to win the Daytona 500, but if I can't win Daytona I want the Brickyard. And man, I'd give 'em all back for a championship?"

Well folks, Johnson might just win them all. In the same year.

Hello, history.

Maybe Johnson should be fitted for a fire-retardant green jacket. This has been a Woodsian season, after all.

Or possibly a new NASCAR tradition is in order: The Nextellow driver suit. (That's short for Nextel yellow, a gaudy hue, indeed. Then again, maybe not. Kurt Busch donned a yellow fire suit in the Busch Series race at Watkins Glen and looked like Chiquita's finest.)

No, Johnson didn't dominate the schedule like Richard Petty did in '67 (27 wins) or Jeff Gordon did in '98 (a ridiculous 13 victories in 34 races); and didn't run away with the title by nearly 500 points like Dale Earnhardt did in 1987.

But he did rally to stage one of the most remarkable comebacks in series history. (Alan Kulwicki's 278-point rally in 1992 is indisputably the greatest comeback ever, by the way.)

Five weeks ago Johnson was 156 points behind then-leader Jeff Burton, an insurmountable tally in most folks' eyes given a Chase format that's unforgiving to those facing an early deficit. Including me -- stupid.

This is the team that erased 239 points from a 247-point deficit in 2004 by winning four of the final six races before ultimately falling eight points short of eventual champ Busch.

That effort, which came in the wake of the Hendrick Motorsports plane crash and a fall full of wedding planning, was emotionally exhausting for Johnson. Last season, when he finished fifth overall after leading the points standings for much of the season, took its toll, as well.

So this year, when the Chase started with a wreck at New Hampshire and ridiculously poor luck at Kansas and Talladega, he and crew chief Chad Knaus shifted the team's focus: Let's go out and win a few.

Five weeks and five consecutive first- or second-place finishes later, he's the points leader with the white flag in the air.

He's a much cooler, calmer customer. It's visibly obvious, and in stark contrast to the demeanor we witnessed in years past.

By no means is it his, mind you. Four hundred critical miles remain in the Chase for the Cup.

And, in turn, the chase for history.

Time to go Door-to-Door with you guys. You ask it. I answer it. We drink cold beers. Cheers.

Q: Marty, had Tony Stewart made the Chase in 10th position, where would he rank right now? And if he wouldn't be the leader, how many points back would he be? Thank you.

--Zach, New Britain, Conn.

Questions like Zach's have provided considerable fodder for debate in recent weeks, and led many analytical types to dissect the Chase format -- should it change and, if so, how? By all means a worthy argument.

But one can't assume Stewart's performance during the nine Chase races would have been precisely the same had he indeed made the Chase. Strategies would have changed, some dramatically so.

He's been stellar, no doubt. But he's been afforded the opportunity to take chances. He won Kansas on a ridiculous fuel-mileage gamble. That never would have happened were he running for a championship.

And the pressure? Night and day from what Johnson and Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have experienced the past two months.

Back to Zach's answer: Based on sheer numbers -- and inputting Stewart's true finishing positions during the Chase -- had his points deficit to the leader been reset to 45 points after race No. 26, he would currently rank second to Johnson.

According to my personal statistician -- who will remain anonymous -- Stewart has outscored Johnson by 19 points during the Chase, 1,306 to 1,287. Hence, had Stewart started the Chase in 10th position -- and thus 40 points down to Johnson, who started the Chase in second position -- he'd trail Johnson by 21 points heading to Homestead.

Speaking of Smoke…

Q: Marty, do you think that Tony Stewart is overrated?

--Riverside

Let's see: 29 wins, two championships and, until this year, never a finish worse than seventh in the overall points standings. Overrated? The smog's clouding your judgment out there, man.

Q: Marty, given his talent, do you think Robby Gordon can ever be a championship contender while owning his own team?

--Nicholas Ferrell, Brooklyn

No. Gordon has as much talent behind the wheel of a race car -- any race car -- as anyone in professional racing. He also happens to be a shrewd businessman who flat knows how to make money.

But from a competition standpoint, the Cup Series is ruthless, especially to those trying to do too much -- be they owner, crew chief, driver, tire-changer, anyone. These days it's all about delegation.

Micromanaging or unwillingness to take a hands-off approach and let specialists specialize is certain demise. Ask Richard Childress or Robert Yates. They had to learn the hard way.

And right now Gordon is forced to do it all. To his credit, he's succeeding far past most folks' expectations, and feels he'll only improve in 2007 given his move from Chevrolet to Ford. He'll be a big fish in a small pond next year, and receive the additional factory-backing that coincides with it.

All said, though, there's no question in my mind he does the most with the least in the Nextel Cup Series.

Q: Marty, why would Mark Martin go to MB2 instead of staying with Roush?

--Terry, Nashville

Simple, Terry, because MB2 was willing and able to give Martin what he wanted -- a partial Nextel Cup schedule with a full-time team capable of running competitively. He's also looking forward to the opportunity to teach youngsters Regan Smith, Craig Kinser and Ricky Carmichael.

And I'm sure the money is not too bad, either.

Q: Marty, is NASCAR the most stupidest sport in the world? It's mainly for fat rednecks who have no brains. Sorry!

--Elmo

Wow … Skip Bayless wrote in. I'm flattered.

Q: MartDawg, what are your thoughts on the possibility of Chip (Ganassi) pulling Casey Mears out of the No. 42 (and sticking him in the No. 30) for Homestead, so that JPM (Juan Pablo Montoya) will get the benefit of his owner points?

--Amie, South Windsor, Conn.

Great question, Amie. From a business standpoint, it makes all the sense in the world. Montoya is the future of Chip Ganassi Racing, and if he's in the No. 42 Dodge, he's guaranteed to make the show in Homestead on owner points.

Otherwise he faces the very real possibility of failing to qualify, and thus going home. That's his worst nightmare. Ganassi's, too.

But it appears he'll have to face that prospect. I spoke with Mears on Tuesday morning and he informed me he's going to drive the No. 42 this weekend in Miami.

"I'm going to be in the 42, for sure," Mears said. "Absolutely."

That leaves Montoya the No. 30, if Ganassi opts to follow through with Montoya's Cup Series debut.

There you have it. Keep the questions coming, folks. We'll make this a habit.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.