Jimmie Johnson making it look easy
CONCORD, N.C. -- Tony Stewart ran out of gas with the lead and less than two laps remaining in the Chase opener at New Hampshire and finished 24th. Clint Bowyer won the race, but his team pushed the tolerances too far and was penalized 150 points.
Kevin Harvick's team got his car too loose over the final 100 laps at Dover, and a top-10 finish turned into 15th. Stewart had a speeding penalty on pit road, lost a lap and finished 21st.
Kyle Busch made the mistake at Kansas of toying with David Reutimann, who later took him out to turn a top-5 finish into 21st. Jeff Burton's team got his car too loose over the final 100 laps to turn a top-5 into 18th.
Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch blew engines to finish 41st and 35th, respectively, last week at California. Carl Edwards had mechanical issues that left him 13 laps down in 34th. Jeff Gordon was penalized for speeding on pit road, turning a potential win into ninth.
So is Jimmie Johnson winning this championship or is everybody else choking it away?
It's hard to argue Johnson hasn't done his part to build his 36-point lead over second-place Denny Hamlin. He's finished first, second and third in the past three races, leaving everybody else with no room for error. His only mistake came at New Hampshire, where he spun out early and later had to pit under green because of a flat tire, turning what appeared to be a top-5 or win into 25th.
One could argue from the examples above that the opposition hasn't done anything to keep the driver of the No. 48 from being in position to win his fifth straight title.
Are they choking?
Are they giving the trophy to Johnson?
"I could have the argument for that," said Gordon, who will start on the pole in Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Are they that good where everybody just goes, 'You know what, we are either going to go down dying or trying?'
"There is a lot of arguments for that. You certainly can't just give that to them, and I don't think it has happened yet. Those guys have performed well and that makes everybody else have to step up, and when you have to step up, you make more mistakes."
Stewart said he doesn't believe running out of gas at New Hampshire was a choke, but he certainly takes blame. The two-time champion said had he known the situation was that "grave" he would have conserved and settled for second or third, if he couldn't hold off Bowyer.
Gordon said he definitely believes his speeding penalty was a choke.
"Oh, yeah," the four-time champion said. "I still think that ninth-place finish was my fault. We were capable of being in the top five with those restarts the way they came down and I choked on pit road. It always comes down to that.
"That's the thing about the Chase. It really puts a lot of pressure on everybody to get everything out of it, and when you push that hard every weekend to get everything you can out of it, sometimes you're going to make mistakes."
Over the past four years, the No. 48 has made few mistakes, and when it has made mistakes the rebound usually is a win, like at Dover.
Nobody else can say that.
"I think it's more people [being] eager," Hamlin said of Chasers making mistakes. "At this point, you see guys that maybe had a bad week last week be more aggressive out on the race track this week."
Eagerness or being overaggressive often turns into mistakes. The blown engines at California could have been the result of the drivers keeping the RPMs too high and too long to make up ground or the result of engineers pushing boundaries to the limit.
Speeding penalties happen because drivers know they can make up more spots on pit road than the track.
"When I was speeding down pit road, I certainly wasn't thinking about Jimmie Johnson," Gordon said. "I was just thinking I didn't want to give up anything. That is the Chase format. If you're out there and the No. 48 is leading and you are running fifth or second and you spin out, then those guys are in your head.
"But other than that, it is just the pressure of everything. You are just trying to push so hard because you know you have to."
That could be interpreted as a choke. That also is a matter of opinion.
"No, I forced myself into a mistake," Stewart said of the New Hampshire race. "I wanted to win that race so bad that I just didn't do a good enough job of doing what they were asking me to do and I didn't do a good enough job under the cautions.
"It wasn't that we choked. I just didn't do a good enough job."
Teams better start doing a good job -- or at least better than the 48 -- this weekend, or we could be headed for another Johnson avalanche. The good news for the competition is Johnson has won once at Charlotte since 2007, after winning five times and finishing second two other times from 2003 to 2006.
His average finish over the past seven races on the 1.5-mile track is 17.1. The bad news for the competition is Johnson is the defending champion of this race.
Several teams have reason for optimism. Kurt Busch has to believe he can trim some of his 140-point deficit, since he won the All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 here in May. A sweep would make him the first person to win all three races in the same year.
But in all likelihood, the 2004 Cup champion has made too many mistakes already to catch up.
Stewart has to be confident with a win and a fourth-place finish in his past two starts, even though he's finished no better than 11th at Charlotte in the five previous races. Gordon definitely is on a high after capturing the pole on a track he's won on seven times and finished in the top eight in five of the past six races.
"This was huge and a huge shock," Gordon said after winning the pole. "We just have not been qualifying good this year we haven't qualified this well in Charlotte for 10 years.
"But awesome timing in the Chase after the way we ended last week's race. This definitely is a little small momentum and confidence booster."
The problem for Gordon and everybody else is Johnson doesn't need a confidence boost. The 48 team doesn't worry about where it qualifies because there's the belief, and a history to prove it, that they can win from anywhere. That has to get in the heads of the competition at some point.
I go back to the fact that the best team wins the championship. That means that you go out and outperform your competitors week in and week out, whether that means capitalizing on their misfortunes or mistakes or whatever it may be, or just going out there and outperforming them.” -- Jeff Gordon
"Those guys are so good and so strong in the Chase, and it probably takes a little bit of wind out of the sails of some," Gordon said.
You hardly ever see the wind knocked out of Johnson's sails. He came to Charlotte a year ago with only a 12-point lead and said the goal was to lead every practice, qualify first, lead the most laps and win the race.
The word choke isn't in the team's vocabulary.
The only mistake Johnson can make would be to look ahead to the season finale at Homestead and envision himself hoisting the trophy again. That won't happen. He won't let it happen.
"You need every point," Johnson said.
Johnson has a killer instinct that many don't notice because of his soft-spoken manner. But when asked if he hoped to drive a stake into the heart of the competition this weekend, he replied matter-of-factly, "We really hope to."
He could do it, particularly if other teams keep making mistakes around him. He's already eliminated over half the Chase field, with realistically nobody a viable contender behind Stewart in fifth, 107 points out.
Another strong showing at Charlotte and that number could be cut in half, with fourth-place Gordon already 85 back.
The stake may look even closer to the competition knowing next week is Martinsville, where if Johnson finishes outside the top two it is considered an upset.
If Johnson wins another title, is it fair to say everybody around him choked or made mistakes? Probably not, at least not at the level he's performing.
It means he's better than everybody else -- again.
"I go back to the fact that the best team wins the championship," Gordon said. "That means that you go out and outperform your competitors week in and week out, whether that means capitalizing on their misfortunes or mistakes or whatever it may be, or just going out there and outperforming them."
And not choking, of course.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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