Chase or no Chase, Johnson would still be the man to beat at Homestead-Miami

Updated: February 13, 2009, 1:12 PM ET

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Jimmie Johnson has won at eight of the 10 racetracks in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Start Your Engines

This has been a thought-provoking 2008 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Oh, not from watching the on-track product, at least not every week. Rather it's been thought-provoking considering the countless scenarios cooked up to change the Chase as Jimmie Johnson has continued his march to a third consecutive title.

Apparently it's not healthy for NASCAR to have a dominant driver in its playoff, or a team that lives for the last 10 races of the season and has repeatedly delivered the clutch performances required to conquer this format.

Jack Roush suggested mulligans, some drivers and pundits have suggested new point schemes. Playing with the math can be fun, albeit useless -- Johnson would still be winning under any scenario, and even without a Chase, he would be 56 points ahead of Carl Edwards.

To stop the No. 48 Hendrick Chevy in the Chase, one must talk about changing more than the numbers -- try changing the schedule. Johnson has won races on eight different tracks in the Chase and has been winning for so long that one of those is Darlington (S.C.), a track in the inaugural 2004 Chase that since has been replaced by Texas.

Better scrap Martinsville first, he's won the past three October dates there and led a billion laps in the process (OK, 731). He won Phoenix last weekend for the second consecutive Chase, so that's out. He has bagged a pair of playoff wins at Charlotte, and this year he added Kansas to his Chase checklist. Toss 'em both.

Also discard Dover and Texas. Those have been victorious and otherwise reliable tracks in Johnson's Chase career, which also includes a runner-up (2004) and fifth-place finish ('05) in addition to the two titles and a soon-to-be third.

"Without having any experience or any idea of how to race for the championship, he almost fell into one there right out of the box," teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "The guy is the real thing, and he's a true talent and a great person. If he can maintain this over his entire career, you really have to put him up there in the top five, top 10 [all-time] for sure."

So if you don't want this run maintained, where can you go? Maybe start with this weekend's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the Ford 400 (3:45 p.m. ET, ABC). Johnson hasn't won there, and his worst finish in any Chase race was at the 1.5-mile oval in 2005, when he crashed and finished 40th.

In his title years he has finished ninth and seventh, though in those races he didn't have to be spectacular. And, of course, Sunday he need only finish 36th to clinch Cup No. 3. If the car starts when drivers get the command, he's golden.

"I really think where we are in points is going to allow me to go to Homestead and take a little pressure off my brain this week," said Johnson, basking in his 141-point lead over Edwards. "Just go down and relax and get in the car and set it up, just do what we know how to do, go shoot for the pole on Friday with no pressure. And same thing in race practice; just get the car driving good and comfortable and make sure it has speed in it.

"There's no need to do anything stupid. ... But at the same time, how cool would it be to win out? I still think we can do that. I'd love to do that."

If he doesn't, keep Homestead on the list of possibilities for an anti-Johnson Chase schedule. Also add Bristol, Tenn., Chicagoland, Michigan and the road courses at Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y. Johnson has not won at any of those tracks. Heck, throw in Rockingham, N.C. -- Johnson had a 23.2 average finish in five races before that track vanished from the schedule. Everyone wants to go back to the Rock, right? Maybe not JJ.

Time to get that creative if you want to talk about the Sprint Cup not permanently riding with the No. 48. And we're not talking swapping Atlanta for California, the big move for 2009. Johnson has three wins at Fontana and eight top-5s in 12 starts. That's not a roadblock for Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and Co.; that's a buffet.

Or, here's one more thought. Maybe it's time to stop scheming and start enjoying an amazing run by an impeccable team. There's nothing wrong with that.

Rocket Man

Jimmie Johnson: Without getting too deep into discussing the switch of last weekend's race broadcast from ABC to ESPN2 in the closing laps (we know where our bread is buttered), we must take exception to one idea repeatedly mentioned since Sunday.

This was not NASCAR's "Heidi" moment, nor was it going to be. Unlike 1968, when the Jets blew that lead at Oakland with a minute left, Johnson held on to his lead at the 1-mile oval. To be exact, the man led the last 95 laps and 217 of 313 in all. He was on a rail.

A "Heidi" moment would have been Johnson giving away the points lead in a very late crash, but anyone who's been paying the slightest attention the last three months knew that wasn't going to happen. It was a cute headline, but not accurate.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Standings

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Slippery Slope

Burton

Jeff Burton: For the second time in three years, the veteran put himself squarely in title talk at the midpoint of the Chase, this year after a win at Charlotte. He moved into second in points, 69 behind Jimmie Johnson, and it was fun to wonder if the 41-year-old veteran could be the guy to end the No. 48's dominance.

Alas, the feeling didn't last past the next race, when the Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevy finished 17th at Martinsville. Since then he has added finishes of 18th, 13th and ninth -- not awful, but not nearly good enough to hang in the hunt. He's now fourth in points, 269 back.

Going The Wrong Way

Stewart

Tony Stewart: We seriously doubt Smoke would be upset about not getting on stage for the awards banquet, but we also know he couldn't have enjoyed plummeting to 12th in points after a top-10 day at Phoenix ended up 22nd after being collected in two late-race wrecks.

"Whatever could go wrong there at the end, did," said Stewart after turning in his second-worst Phoenix finish in 14 starts.

Just a hunch, but look for Stewart to be a factor Sunday in his last start for Joe Gibbs Racing. Maybe even enough of a factor to get back in the top 10 in points.

Showing Some Love For …

Ragan

David Ragan: Plenty of love these days for the Roush Fenway No. 6 Ford. Tony Stewart said Ragan was his pick for driver of the year, as the sophomore graduated from "dart with feathers" status to a guy who knows what he's doing.

Ragan missed the Chase, but he has 13th place in points locked up thanks to a consistent run during Chase races that some of the playoff qualifiers can't match. He finished 28th to start the Chase at Loudon, N.H., but has had nothing worse than 18th since and five top-10s in the past seven, including 10th last weekend at Phoenix.

"We didn't have the best car, but we put in a good effort, and the results show," Ragan said.