It's JJ's to lose, but he still could lose
Yes, it looks grim for the anxious 11, those Chase competitors not named Jimmie Johnson.
The white flag of surrender is on its way up, so maybe it's time to give a little hope to the hopeless.
Stranger things have happened. The 1969 Mets won the World Series. The 1980 U.S. hockey team beat the Russians and went on to win the gold medal. A computer nerd from Seattle became one of the richest men in the world.
Anything is possible, but the 11 dwarfs need some help. They keep making mistakes. Johnson keeps doing everything right, running right by them.
It's like a pack of old mules trying to catch a Triple Crown winning thoroughbred. And these mules, uh, sorry, Chase contenders, are starting to sound defeated.
"A thousand things have to go right, and if any one of them goes wrong, then your night is bad," Carl Edwards said Saturday after a blown engine ended his horrible race. "This is the most frustrated I've been in a long time, but you can't do anything about it."
Not when Johnson's beating you every week. Johnson's victory Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway, his third in five Chase races, placed him 90 points ahead of Mark Martin.
It's the largest margin between first and second at the halfway point of any Chase playoff.
"I don't think any of us can stop [Johnson] at this point as far as points go," Kasey Kahne said after his third-place finish Saturday night. "Anything can happen the rest of the year. If it doesn't, Jimmie is the guy."
Kahne's right. Something has to go wrong for Johnson if anything is going to go right for the other 11 Chasers.
So what are the things that could go wrong? Let me count the ways:
1. Talladega: Only two weeks away, Dega is a possible game-changer on every lap.
One tiny mistake by someone in a big pack of cars could bring "The Big One'' and Johnson could find his No. 48 Chevy beyond repair in a 43rd-place finish.
It's the one place where the best car, best driver and best team could lose 150 points in the blink of an eye.
2. Mechanical failure: Hendrick Motorsports builds the best race cars in NASCAR, but no machine with hundreds of moving parts is foolproof.
To produce cars that are faster than all the others, Hendrick's engineers, engine builders, fabricators, et al have to push the equipment to the limits of it capabilities. Doing so is inherently dangerous.
But something much simpler could break Johnson's stranglehold on the top spot. One blown tire from running over debris could put him in the wall and cause a bad finish.
3. Complacency: It's possible to be too good, so good that you start believing you're invincible. And who could blame Johnson and the 48 team if they started to feel untouchable?
Once you go down the path, trouble is waiting to bring you back to reality. You forget to do all the little things you were doing that made you almost perfect.
Johnson shows no signs of the big-head syndrome, but it's easy to see how he could assume he's unbeatable at this point.
Complacency could happen to someone besides Johnson on the 48 team. His pit crew has shown signs of vulnerability in recent races.
Don't get cocky, guys. A careless error on pit road could cost your driver a date with history.
4. Punishment: Goodness knows NASCAR officials have tried everything to find a flaw in the Hendrick armor.
A neurosurgeon using an electron microscope doesn't examine a patient's brain as closely as NASCAR inspectors have looked at the 48 Chevy over the past month.
NASCAR officials have taken Johnson's and Martin's cars back to the R & D Center every week and meticulously measured every inch of the cars to see if those hot rods are on the up-and-up.
They haven't found a thing, except to warn the Hendrick brain trust about being too close to the tolerances at the risk of going over.
Some would say NASCAR is using intimidation and picking on the leader. Pick long enough and you just might find something.
Unless it's a major rule violation, highly unlikely for an organization this good, would NASCAR have the guts to penalize them now?
None of these things is likely, of course, but don't give up. Keep the faith, anxious 11.
Derrike Cope won the Daytona 500. Mankind walked on the moon. Lyle Lovett married Julia Roberts.
You never know.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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