Commentary

Jimmie Johnson has championship look

Updated: October 17, 2010, 3:06 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- If you want to know why Jimmie Johnson is going to win a fifth straight Sprint Cup championship, look no further than what he did Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Thirty-five laps into the fifth race of the Chase, Johnson spun out, fell back to 34th on the ensuing restart, rallied to take the lead and walked away with a third-place finish that extended his points lead over Denny Hamlin to 41.

Another lap and he may have passed Kyle Busch for second.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJimmie Johnson filled Kyle Busch's rearview often down the stretch Saturday night at Charlotte.

For perhaps more than ever this season, Johnson again looked like Superman, as Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin dubbed him last year. He didn't panic, and neither did crew chief Chad Knaus, who kept repeating, "You can do this, you can do this."

"Coming into the Chase, I didn't have that confidence [that we could do this]," Johnson said as he stood on pit road afterward. "I didn't think we were in that position. Maybe that is what everybody was noticing and thought we were vulnerable because of that.

"I now know we're capable of it, and tonight we proved to ourselves more than anything that we can come back and fight through issues and still get a good finish."

That's bad news for the rest of the Chase field -- what's left of it, that is.

What was the closest battle in Chase history after three races now is a three-man show, with Kevin Harvick still in the mix 77 back after finishing eighth on a track where he traditionally struggles.

If Johnson goes on to win the title as he appears poised to do, he'll look back on this night as a big reason.

"I hope so," Johnson said as Bank of America 500 winner Jamie McMurray completed his burnout. "I really think so. I hope we can look back on tonight and say that was pretty special what we did."

This isn't the first time we've seen this Herculean type of effort from the No. 48 team. It has to frustrate the other Chase competitors, who had to do a little Tiger Woods fist pump when they saw Johnson's car spinning sideways after he made a mistake trying to get around a much slower Bobby Labonte early on.

Unfortunately for the competition, whether it is skill or the lucky horseshoe that is back where the sun doesn't shine, Johnson didn't hit anything.

"They really do well at overcoming adversity," Hamlin said after finishing fourth. "That's been their MO for years now. I feel like we're following in their footsteps. We just don't recover as good as they do."

Few teams in the history of the sport have recovered as well as Johnson's, but that doesn't mean it gets old or any less nerve-racking. Knaus had to make tough decisions, such as to stay out and pick up track position when Johnson was running 15th.

"It wouldn't be any fun if we gave up, would it?" Knaus said with a poker-faced smile.

It might make some of the so-called "48 Haters," the ones who swear they'll never watch another race if Johnson wins another title, happy. It might make the competition happy.

It definitely would have made Jeff Gordon (23rd), Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart (21st), who saw their chances of winning the title disappear, happy.

They really do well at overcoming adversity. That's been their MO for years now. I feel like we're following in their footsteps. We just don't recover as good as they do.

-- Denny Hamlin on Jimmie Johnson

It's just not in the 48 team's nature.

"We just don't stop," Knaus said. "We just can't."

Still, it didn't look good for Johnson when he was sliding backward. It sparked visions of the May race here when he lost control, hit the inside wall and finished 37th.

"I saw my hard work for the year and dreams of being a five-time time champion go away," said Johnson, who has finished first, second, third and third over the past four weeks.

Johnson admittedly became gun-shy for a while. Realizing how loose the car was and that he lost patience trying to get around Labonte had him thinking about the spring race. But unlike many others in the same situation, he didn't lose his poise.

"It was a really good warning sign to me, 'Hey, stupid, don't push the issues. Don't make another mistake,'" Johnson said.

He didn't.

We shouldn't be surprised. We also shouldn't be surprised if Johnson stretches his lead further next week at Martinsville, where he's won five of the past eight races. One factor to think this race could stay tight is Hamlin, who has won the past two at the half-mile track and three of the past five.

"I think it's going to boil down to mistakes," Johnson said.

Johnson made one Saturday and turned it into a near victory.

That's bad news for the rest of the field.

"Tonight is a night that reminds me of the last four years and what made this team champions," Johnson said. "I hope tonight's performance leads us to a championship. There's obviously a lot of racing left. No telling what's going to happen.

"But when we look back, I hope we are the champions and I hope we look back and say that Charlotte was the key point for us. We kept our composure."

And that's what wins championships.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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