Lucky or good? Johnson's got a little bit of both going
Jimmie Johnson seems to be on an unstoppable roll as he heads to Charlotte in pursuit of his third consecutive Cup title. But is he lucky or good? Ed Hinton explores.
If Jimmie Johnson three-peats as Sprint Cup champion, he might do it in a throwback way that borders on metaphysical.
There were times under the old Cup points system when, standings aside, you could sense a championship in the making because a driver seemed to be leading a charmed existence.
It was sort of Murphy's Law in reverse: Nothing that could go wrong did.
The most dramatic example was Bobby Labonte in 2000, because what could have gone wrong was that he could have been killed.He came very close. His throttle stuck during a practice session for the Southern 500 at Darlington. His car was destroyed as it slammed into the bare concrete wall.
Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr. had been killed that season in very similar crashes that began with stuck throttles. This was before the HANS was accepted, and before the SAFER barrier was even developed.
What saved Labonte was the angle at which his car hit the wall -- slightly different at Darlington from the way Petty and Irwin had hit at New Hampshire.
Labonte went to a backup car, which wasn't as good, and had to work hard just to be decent in the Southern 500.
Late in the race, just after the front-runners had pitted under caution and Labonte inherited the lead, a rainstorm ended the race. Labonte won.
You had a pretty good idea then and there that nothing was going to stop Bobby Labonte from winning the 2000 Winston Cup.
Until now, there has been no such phenomenon under the Chase format. And no, Kurt Busch's broken wheel at Homestead in 2004 -- right at the entrance to pit road so he could get repairs to save his title -- doesn't count.
That was a singular flash of luck. Not a package.
There was nothing mystical about the two titles that brought Johnson to this point, his shot at becoming the first driver to win three straight championships since Cale Yarborough capped a three-year run in 1978.
Johnson's championship of 2006 came in a clear pattern of high finishes late in the Chase. His repeat in '07 rode on the brute force of his team's ability to win races, 10 in all, including four in a row late in the Chase.
Not until Talladega on Sunday did you sense some planets aligning.
Even Johnson's underpowered car, which at the outset Sunday seemed disastrous for him, was a 3,400-pound talisman that kept him from all else that could have gone wrong.
If sheer deadliness wasn't as much of an issue -- thanks now to the HANS, the SAFER and the new car -- as with Labonte's climb back into the saddle in 2000, there was still a fear factor.
Johnson had been "worried all the way back to Friday" when Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew a tire and crashed during practice. Johnson's angst deepened as the race unfolded, with exploding tires causing four wrecks by the halfway point, including one that left Denny Hamlin hospitalized overnight for observation.
But Johnson had no tire failures. Neither was he affected by blowouts on other cars, as teammate and fellow Chaser Jeff Gordon was when David Reutimann spun in front of him. Gordon was trying to get to Johnson to help him in the draft when Gordon got taken out.
After that, Johnson, "somehow, some way," avoided both the big ones -- the massive pileups for which Talladega is notorious.
For him, the second pileup, which took out six Chasers, was at least a triple stroke of fortune.
It's not just that he missed the wreck while his two closest competitors in the Chase, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, were in it (in fact, Edwards caused it). It's more that luck saved Johnson from his own intentions. Moments before Edwards bump-drafted Biffle too hard, and in a turn at that, Johnson had decided to stick right with those two.
They'd been hanging around the back of the pack, and when they decided to go toward the front for the finish, "I thought, if I follow these guys if we wreck, at least we all wreck together," Johnson said.
He'd come to Talladega 10 points ahead of Edwards and 20 ahead of Biffle. If he'd wrecked with them, he'd have left in the same shape or worse. As it was, he left 72 and 75 ahead of them, respectively.
"They go forward, hooked up bumper-to-bumper on the outside, three-wide, we're just passing people; I'll stick with it," Johnson said. "As we went off into three, whatever happened took place."
Most amazing, considering all the traffic behind them, "I was very lucky not to have anyone following me too close into three, because when I jammed on the brakes, no one hit me from behind. If somebody had, I would have been collected in it -- it would have been over."
I thought, if I follow these guys if we wreck, at least we all wreck together.
-- Jimmie Johnson
Next came a key decision when the red and caution periods caused by that big one ended with 10 laps to go. Would Johnson ride it out carefully, and accept his phenomenal luck to that point, or would he push it?
At Talladega, you don't need the best car to win if you get the right shove at the right moment. So would he try to lay another 50 points each on Edwards and Biffle, and go maybe 125 ahead? That wouldn't be a lock, but it would be a license to run cautiously in the rest of the Chase.
The Chevrolet Talisman -- I mean Impala -- took control of the situation again, letting the combatants for the win get away.
And that was the crown-jewel stroke of luck in Johnson's day.
Had he gunned for the win, he might have suffered the same fate as rookie Regan Smith, who crossed the finish line ahead of declared winner Tony Stewart. Smith not only was denied the win but was penalized all the way back to 18th by NASCAR for passing below the yellow line.
Johnson "without a doubt," he said, would have made the same move in the same situation as Smith. Johnson had heard the same rumor Smith had Sunday morning.
"Like wildfire, it went through the garage area," Johnson said. Word was that on the last lap, "when you could see the flagman, anything goes."
But NASCAR never made that official. So something else that could have gone wrong for Johnson didn't.
As for the old line that you'd rather be lucky than good, there has never been doubt that Johnson's No. 48 team is very, very good. Chad Knaus remains at the pinnacle as NASCAR's best crew chief, at both calling races and preparation, with virtually unlimited resources from Hendrick Motorsports.
But now they're lucky and good. Which is why, although the points don't yet make it a lock, I sense three-peat.Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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