Commentary

Jimmie Johnson will win by a hair

Updated: November 16, 2010, 2:25 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- No driver has lost the Chase lead with two races remaining since the playoff format was implemented in 2004. No driver has lost the points lead, period, with two races remaining since Bill Elliott lost to Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

Yada, yada, yada.

Statistics say Denny Hamlin is a lock to capture his first Sprint Cup title with two races remaining at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Statistics say this is true even though there have been two Chases at this point tighter than this one -- where Hamlin has a 33-point edge over Jimmie Johnson and a 59-point advantage over Kevin Harvick.

"I really try not to think into stats too much because I know stats are very misleading," Hamlin said Friday.

Smart guy.

'Cause he's gonna lose.

If Hamlin doesn't, he'll remind us of these words like he reminded another reporter on Friday how wrong he was for saying his championship chances ended in March when it was discovered he needed surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

"When the media sets out their projections of who's going to finish where and one of y'all leaves us out of the Chase or one of y'all have us at the bottom, we post it right on the board and we say, 'We're going to stick it to your a--,'" Hamlin said of his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team.

This may come back to bite me in the rear and end up on the bulletin board at Joe Gibbs Racing, but I'm going to tell you five reasons why Johnson will win his fifth straight title.

'What up with the hair?'

Johnson was center stage at The Venue for Thursday night's latest installment of "Jimmie Jam" -- a season-long concert series for sponsor customers -- when host Rutledge Wood for the second time in less than an hour asked what was up with his hair.

"I haven't shaved either," Johnson said with a smile.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesLong-haired Jimmie Johnson and daughter Genevieve Marie are the 48 team's 1-2 punch.

Others have asked the same question recently, particularly after Johnson's longerthan-normal locks were blown somewhat out of control by the breeze before the drivers' meeting at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend.

Johnson's black locks aren't a threat to surpass Danica Patrick's, but there is a history in sports (and life in general) of people with longer hair succeeding.

There's San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum in the baseball world, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who is having a monster year in the NFL world, and Bjorn Borg of the tennis world.

Then there's Samson from the Old Testament world.

As the words from the musical "Hair" go:

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair

This isn't to suggest Johnson will get more strength from his hair, but it does make him stand out among the tight-clipped Hamlin and Harvick. And you know the saying: Guys with short hair seem to be more uptight.

There's also a belief that a man willing to change his hairstyle is adventurous and requires courage and has a lot of creativity.

Johnson will win by a hair.

Diaper change

Johnson stood in the balcony of The Venue discussing everything he's seen come from baby Genevieve Marie Johnson since he became a diaper-changer in July.

When you've lived through that, you can handle anything.

The naysayers out there will argue that NASCAR hasn't crowned a champion with a kid in diapers since maybe Dale Earnhardt in 1990, when daughter Taylor was approaching 2. They'll say look at what diaper-changing has done to Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, who haven't won in 70 and 68 races, respectively.

But Johnson seems to relish diaper duty. He even has a strategy, talking in detail about how he and his wife delayed the start of real food for a few more weeks so as not to deal with side effects during the Chase. It seemingly takes his mind off the pressures of a race weekend.

Hamlin can't relate. Neither can Harvick, who only has to clean up after his dogs.

This has made Johnson mentally stronger, if that is possible.

Pit crew change

Johnson leaned against his car at Texas Motor Speedway after last week's ninth-place finish, matter-of-factly reminding us that you have to keep emotion out of the equation if you're going to win a title.

He was referring to the midrace benching of his pit crew in favor of Jeff Gordon's, a move that was made permanent on Monday.

If you're hung up on stats, look at the advantages Johnson gained. Gordon's crew has won the pit road precision award four times this season, tied for second-most in the series. Johnson's crew hasn't won.

Johnson's average time in the Chase for a four-tire pit stop with his former crew was 13.8 seconds, tied for seventh among the 12 playoff contenders. Hamlin's average time is 13.1 seconds, which ranks first. Gordon's over-the-wall gang was second at 13.2 seconds.

Six-tenths of a second doesn't sound like much, but Johnson lost two spots on his first pit at Texas with a 13.8 stop. Average that out over the course of a race and that adds up. Then consider on the last two stops with Gordon's crew, with times of 12.6 and 12.3 seconds, Johnson didn't lose a spot.

That'll add up to another title.

Focus

Johnson sat in his No. 48 Chevrolet on the end of pit road about a half-hour before Friday's first practice at Phoenix.

He didn't take a bathroom break. He didn't get out to talk to fans. He just sat there.

Hamlin had to notice what most of us in the press box noticed.

"The fact that people think about what we're trying to do ends up being a mind game in its own," Johnson said Friday. "They're almost Jedi-mind-tricking themselves."

Johnson obviously has his priorities in order. Hamlin? He spent Thursday in Las Vegas swinging golf clubs in anticipation of Saturday's round with PGA star Bubba Watson.

"I've been trying to warm up and not look like an idiot," Hamlin said. "I haven't really thought about the Chase at all, not until I get to a racetrack on Friday."

Johnson isn't worried about being an idiot.

You are the champ until ...

Johnson was hanging out with a few reporters on the balcony at The Venue when Wood predicted to the crowd that JJ would be the "five-time champion."

"I'll take that," Johnson said.

Until somebody takes the title away, Johnson has to be the driver to beat regardless of the length of his hair, how many diapers he changes or how many pit crew members he swaps out.

He has the one thing Hamlin and Harvick don't, and that's the knowledge that he knows how to win this. He also has Chad Knaus, and despite some mental warfare from Hamlin crew chief Mike Ford, Knaus is the crew chief feared most in the garage.

And while this is the first time Johnson has been behind with two races to go since 2005, when he lost the championship to Tony Stewart, there is nothing to suggest this is over.

Far from it, particularly when you consider Johnson has won four of the past six races at Phoenix.

"I really don't focus on stats all that much," Johnson said. "I had heard about that stat [nobody trailing with two to go has won in the Chase] coming into this weekend. I certainly want to believe that it is possible to come back, especially from such a small margin that we have right now.

"I'm not sure why it hasn't happened. Honestly, we had six Chases, so it's not a long time. Things can change pretty quickly with only six years of having the Chase."

Yes, they can.

And if they don't, Hamlin has every right to pin this column up wherever he wants.

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

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