Danger lurking in Johnson's rearview
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- We all have a friend or relative, maybe two or three, we fear riding with or being next to in another car. My mom and 16-year-old son top the list here.
Sorry, guys. It's true.
So as I watched Jimmie Johnson bounce off the outside and inside retaining walls three laps into Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, losing 111 points off his seemingly insurmountable lead, this thought crossed my mind: Who is Johnson most afraid to be near on the track?
Trying to get an honest answer out of the three-time defending Cup champion might be tougher than getting him to admit he was comfortable with the 184-point lead he had over Mark Martin before Sunday's wreck reduced the margin to 73.
Nobody wants to trash a fellow driver, particularly when history is in the balance.
So I began forming my own list, going through NASCAR's seemingly endless stream of loop data to determine who could have the biggest impact on the final two races at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami.
Your input was sought as well. Apparently, you've been paying attention. Your top three were spot-on with the CSI crash data collected.
Johnson actually gave us an indication of who his top choice was on Sunday when he described his Lap 3 run-in with Sam Hornish Jr.
"I wish he could have waited a little longer to lose it,'' Johnson said. "I saw he lost it later on in the race and he can do that from time to time.''
Translation: Johnson knew Hornish was going to wreck at some point because he seemingly does it every race and wishes he had waited until the No. 48 wasn't around.
To be fair, this wasn't totally Hornish's fault. He was nudged by David Reutimann. He also was losing control by that point and likely would have spun out anyway.
"Obviously, you don't ever want to detract from the championship when you're really not involved in it,'' Hornish said.
It happens, though. There's no better example than the 1992 season finale in which Davey Allison needed to finish sixth or better to wrap up the title. He was doing just that on Lap 253 of the 328-lap event at Atlanta Motor Speedway when Ernie Irvan had a tire go down.
Irvan, who was more than 400 points out of first place, lost control and spun in front of Allison for a classic T-bone collision. Allison limped home to a 27th-place finish and wound up third in the standings, 63 points behind Alan Kulwicki.
Could it happen again with Johnson? Several of you suggest scenarios.
"[David] Stremme is going to be in the 09 at Homestead,'' one of you wrote. "I know he will bounce off the 48 at least six times if he doesn't spin him in the first try.''
And you wonder why Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus get a tad touchy every time it is suggested they have a lead that can't be overcome.
"This could take place at the start of the race next weekend,'' Johnson said late Sunday afternoon. "You just never know. That's the stuff that worries me. ... As we saw today, anything can happen.''
Precisely. That's why I began devising this list, to let Johnson know exactly who to avoid.
To do that, you need a formula. Do you count driver ranking or percentages of laps finished? I decided against both because some drivers don't participate in every race and one horrendous race could skew the total laps.
I settled on four categories with all but one rating drivers over the past 10 races. One point was awarded for the best -- or worst in this case -- total, two for second and so on.
College basketball has the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), so why shouldn't NASCAR (Reckless Percentage Index).
Here's the formula:
• Drivers involved in a wreck that brings out a caution
• Drivers involved in solo wrecks that bring out a caution
• Number of DNFs over the past 10 races
• Number of DNFs for the season
Let's not beat around the bush. No, not the brothers with a "c'' in their last name. They didn't make the list, although a few of you suggested Kyle Busch should have.
On to which drivers Johnson should fear:
1. Sam Hornish Jr. (five points)
Of the four categories the former Indianapolis 500 winner ranked first in three -- solo wrecks (six), DNFs over the past 10 races (four) and DNFs on the season (eight). He was a close second in wrecks that brought out cautions with seven.
He's been so predictable that one of you made a bet with your dad before Sunday's race on whether "Spin-out-Sam would wreck or not.''
"I won,'' TexTechJMacAttack wrote. "In unrelated news, I won a similar bet the day before regarding Stephen Wallace.''
Sorry, no Nationwide Series nominations accepted.
One of you referred to Hornish as Cole Trickle, saying, "He just needs to hit the pace car.''
The competition for the top spot wasn't really close. But then, Johnson already knew that, judging by more of his postrace comments.
"I just wish the 77 could have ran the bottom and held onto his car,'' he said. "Seems to lose control of that thing a lot and hit a lot of things throughout the course of a race.''
2. Michael Waltrip (nine)
Clint Bowyer was wrong on several fronts when he called Michael Waltrip the "worst driver in NASCAR, period'' last year at Bristol Motor Speedway. First, it was Casey Mears who caused Bowyer to crash.
Second, Waltrip wasn't even good enough -- or bad enough -- to top this list.
But Mikey was an undisputable second, thanks to three solo wrecks and six DNFs on the season.
Apparently, it's not just on the track that it's risky to be around Waltrip. He recently was charged with reckless driving after hitting a motorcyclist when failing to yield while making a U-turn.
Lucky for Johnson his motocross days are done.
3. David Stremme (11) Johnson gets a reprieve this weekend because Stremme no longer drives the No. 12 for Penske Racing. Or is it a break? If you were to add Stremme's mishaps with those of his replacement, Brad Keselowski, the 12 car might vault to the top of the list.
As many of you voiced so strongly, Keselowski has been like a bull in a china shop this season. He caused the final wreck at Talladega two weeks ago when he got into the back of Kurt Busch. His feud with Denny Hamlin is so heated they took it to Twitter.
But this is about Stremme, who like Waltrip ranks high because of six DNFs on the season. Had driver rating been thrown into the mix he would have moved ahead of Waltrip. The good news for Johnson is Stremme won't run this weekend. The bad news, as one of you wrote above, is he'll be in the No. 09 at Homestead-Miami.
You're probably surprised to see NASCAR's most popular driver beside NASCAR's most likely to wreck. Yes, Sorenson has been involved in eight incidents over the past 10 races, three of them solo. Were it not for having only one DNF all season he would have pushed for No. 1 on the list.
Earnhardt made the list for a lot of little reasons, many of them why he's had such a disappointing season. He's been involved in four incidents over the past 10 weeks, two of them solo. He's had five DNFs on the season, which ranks third here. This is not the consistency team owner Rick Hendrick is seeking.
The good news for Johnson here is Earnhardt is a teammate and likely will be more forgiving than others. The bad news is Earnhardt's been running up front lately, so Johnson can't avoid him.
6. John Andretti (13)
Andretti has been sneaky dangerous.
Because he's a nice, soft-spoken driver who has been around for a while, he's gotten high marks for keeping the No. 34 in the top 35 in owner points.
That's even more impressive when you look at the past 10 races. Andretti's been involved in five incidents, two solo.
He's also been able to finish races, with only one DNF in the Chase and only two on the season, so he's not considered as much of a threat as those above him here.
Honestly, I thought Sadler would be higher. But because he has only one DNF all season, the five incidents he had to make this list didn't hurt him.
The same with Allmendinger, whose numbers were identical.
Still, Johnson needs to be wary around both.
Heck, he needs to be careful around everybody. As we've seen, even Chase contenders can make boneheaded moves. Mark Martin got into Juan Pablo Montoya at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Montoya got into Carl Edwards at Texas.
This is why Johnson was nervous before Texas. That is why he remains nervous.
He hopes everybody has a better understanding of that after his crash.
"Even after winning races, fielding questions, the possibility was out there,'' Johnson said of getting caught up in somebody else's mess. "It's still out there. There's no telling what's gonna happen.''
No, but avoiding a few key drivers can increase the odds of survival.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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