Chase championship still JJ's to lose ... and he still could lose it
Think Jimmie Johnson is a lock to win his third straight Cup title? In the wild and wacky world of NASCAR, anything can happen, writes David Newton.
Updated: November 16, 2008, 3:54 PM ETBy David Newton | ESPN.com
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Dale Inman has won more Sprint Cup championships than any man alive. Yes, more than Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. His eight titles as Petty's crew chief and one with Terry Labonte in 1984 make him the real King of NASCAR. So it made sense to seek his advice when looking for ways Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus could blow their march into immortality Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "There's a lot of things that could happen," Inman said, relaxing behind the No. 43 hauler. "There's so many things out of your control. Somebody blows a tire right in front of you and takes you out. You puncture a tire. The list can go on forever and ever." Chances are the 141-point lead Johnson has over Carl Edwards is more than enough to handle any catastrophe. He has to finish only 36th, regardless of what Edwards does, to become the first driver in 30 years to win three consecutive titles. The real pressure is on Knaus to make sure nothing goes wrong with the car, because if the engine holds together, Johnson is good enough and smart enough to stay out of trouble. "Have you ever tried to spit and nothing comes out?" Inman said. "I've done that. When we won the championship in '79 and beat Darrell Waltrip, we didn't know we had it won until we got the white flag. The same way with Terry in '84. "That's what Chad is going through." Knaus said he's relaxed, and he has plenty of spit. But asked which four or five things he's most worried about going wrong, he said, "You think there is only four or five?" Given how ridiculously meticulous Knaus is, the list is more like four or five hundred. He certainly has nightmares of the inaugural Chase in 2004, when Kurt Busch had a wheel fall off as he was heading for pit road on Lap 92 of the Homestead finale. Fortunately for Busch, he barely missed the retaining wall at the entrance of pit road, and the tire shot right onto the track to bring out a caution that allowed the eventual champion to stay on the lead lap. Or he might remember the 2005 Chase, when Greg Biffle had a $1 piece fail late in the 10-race Chase. That eventually became the difference in his finishing 35 points behind Tony Stewart. Or again to the 2004 Chase, when the car of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon came down on the air hose during a late pit stop at Darlington to cost him what appeared to be a sure victory that likely would have made him the champion a week later. Johnson certainly is not happy to be starting 30th, right in the thick of all the guys who seemingly take out innocent bystanders every week. There's no time or room to list all the things that could go wrong Sunday, so we're going to keep it to 10 -- most of which probably didn't make Knaus' checklist.
- Johnson doesn't have the correct change when going through a tollbooth on the Florida Turnpike and turns into the "jackass from El Cajon" that he keeps insisting he is. He has a Tony Stewart moment with the toll operator and gets arrested by Florida's finest for abusive behavior. He misses the entire race sitting in a jail cell, where he can't even watch the race because they're showing replays of "America's Funniest Home Videos."
- Johnson falls asleep poolside Saturday afternoon, gets a third-degree sunburn and can't get into his fire suit. NASCAR officials rule that he can't drive the car in his fire-retardant underwear, so he covers himself with a lubricant from Lowe's to slide into the suit. His still-oily hands slip off the steering wheel on the first lap, and he hits the wall, sending him to a last-place finish.
- Cale Yarborough, wanting to maintain his place as the only driver to win three straight titles, locks Johnson in the Porta-John as he makes his usual last-second pit stop before the race and doesn't let him out until Edwards is holding the championship trophy.
- Gordon feels his teammate is too close to supplanting him as the top driver at Hendrick Motorsports, so he gets crew chief Steve Letarte to sneak the broken part that caused his engine to blow last week at Phoenix into Johnson's car.
- Johnson runs into a huge blow-up beach ball that gets away from fans trying to do a wave and drives straight into the wall and destroys his car. Hey, an oversized orange got onto the track at Chicagoland a few years ago, so it could happen.
- Johnson can't get out of his motor coach because the door is glued shut. Mysterious tubes of Office Depot (Edwards' sponsor) glue are found in a nearby trash can. Johnson gets out 50 laps into the race, only to have a flock of Aflac (Edwards' secondary sponsor) ducks disguised as seagulls fly into his car and send him behind the wall.
- Juan Pablo Montoya remembers that Johnson is the only driver he hasn't taken out this season. But Johnson gets back on the track with enough laps to recover, and Sam Hornish Jr. remembers he hasn't taken out the 48 car this season.
- Johnson thinks he already has this thing won, so he tries to surf on the roof of his golf cart on the way to driver introductions, but falls off and breaks both legs.
- The lucky penny the superstitious Johnson glues to his dash with a Home Depot product comes off and gets into the electrical system. He loses 48 laps sitting on pit road while crew members scramble to fix the problem.
- Chandra Johnson decides she wants to be more like Delana Harvick, so she puts on a fire suit and tells Knaus she'll call the race. She forgets to have her husband pit with 10 laps remaining because she's watching the Fashion Channel on one of the monitors. Johnson then runs out of gas and finishes 37th.