Uh-oh, JJ on track to clinch title early
NASCAR is perilously close to the unthinkable.
It's entirely possible, maybe even probable, the Chase drivers will head to South Florida for the season finale next month with no one left to chase.
If Jimmie Johnson is 162 points ahead of the second-place driver when the Sprint Cup teams leave Phoenix on Nov. 15, JJ's fourth consecutive championship is a done deal.
Unofficially, of course. Johnson's one remaining requirement would be starting the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway one week later.
Flip the switch to start the motor, take the green flag and go grab the trophy.
The thought of that happening seemed impossible when the Chase playoff format was started in 2004.
And now? Frankly, I'll be surprised if it doesn't happen.
Johnson's second-place finish at Martinsville on Sunday moved him 118 points ahead of second-place Mark Martin in the Cup standings. Johnson needs to gain only 44 over the next three races to clinch before the final event.
"The way he's running, you've probably got to win the next [four] races and he's got to have some bad luck," Juan Pablo Montoya said after finishing third at Martinsville. "I'm too far [200 points back]. It doesn't matter. You've got to say the 48 team is doing an amazing job and they deserve everything they're getting right now."
Darian Grubb, Tony Stewart's crew chief, just shakes his head in amazement at trying to play in Johnson's kingdom.
"He has that dominant performance going and he is out there pulling away from everybody," Grubb said after Stewart finished ninth at Martinsville. "You have a good strong run and you still lose points. That is a hard day to swallow."
If Johnson gets through Talladega this weekend without making scrap metal of the No. 48 Chevrolet, he easily could gain enough points on the other Chasers at Texas and Phoenix -- two of Johnson's best tracks -- to clinch early.
Johnson is averaging a 21-point gain in each of the 2009 Chase races. If that pace continues, he would leave Phoenix with a 181-point advantage.
If he left Phoenix with a 196-point cushion, he could win the title without racing at Homestead.
Just sit on the No. 48 pit box and give the command: "Gentlemen, start your engines. No. 48 team, break open the champagne."
Johnson wouldn't do that, of course, but he could drive the race backward if he so desired.
I've always been a big proponent of a playoff system. It gives more teams a chance to win a title and championship hopes to more drivers when those hopes would have disappeared early in the old format.
It also adds excitement leading up to the Chase with teams trying to get in the playoff or trying to stay in the top 12.
That part of the plan is a success. But the main idea -- a dramatic season finale with the championship on the line -- is a dismal failure. It isn't working.
The first year of the Chase in 2004 is the only season when the leader went to the final race with a cushion of less than 50 points. That first Chase was golden.
Kurt Busch went to Homestead with an 18-point lead over Johnson and only 21 points over Jeff Gordon. Johnson fell eight points short of catching Busch, who held on despite losing a tire as he entered the pits on one stop early in the race.
The first playoff ended in spectacular fashion, leading almost everyone to believe more of the same was ahead for the future.
Johnson's dominance has put an end to that thought. In his three championship seasons, his average margin over the closest pursuer heading into the season final is 103 points. Johnson's average championship margin is 63 points.
Wake me when it's over. The 48 team has mastered the system so well that it almost seems sinister, like a teenage computer hacker getting the password to your ATM card.
Hendrick Motorsports cars have won 16 of the past 27 Cup races. No Ford driver has won over that span.
The new car was supposed to give more teams a chance to race competitively. It hasn't.
Parity doesn't exist in Cup. It doesn't even exist within the Hendrick clan once the Chase starts and Johnson rolls into playoff mode.
They can Chase all they want, but no one is catching Johnson unless he falls. Even Johnson is bored with it all.
"It's the same stuff over and over again," he said Sunday after the race. "We all know what the answers are.
"The stuff I can't control, I know it gives everybody something to talk about, but I'm tired of talking about all the what-ifs and I'd just rather not. If we have no issues, I feel things will turn out as we want."
And the thing he really wants -- a historic fourth consecutive championship -- may come his way one week before the season ends, leaving a Chaseless finish to 2009.
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 email@example.com.
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