Johnson hoping he still has it for final 10
Johnson's title-worthy efforts are less meaningful right now under the new points system, though they certainly show his strong potential to hoist the Nextel Cup trophy and have the team feeling confident.
It's the first year under the new championship format, where consistency may help secure a top 10 position through 26 races and a berth to compete for the title, but after that the points are reset and it's, "What have you done for me lately?" That means the 105-point lead Johnson has built with his series-leading 13 top fives will automatically be reduced to five, assuming he remains the leader come Chase time.
Johnson could win every race from now through Richmond and come out of it with just a five-point advantage over whoever is in second place.
Upon finally elevating his game to the level it takes to lead the points race, Johnson finds himself under tremendous pressure not to stumble late. One small hiccup in Race 27 or beyond could erase the momentum his team built over 26 events.
"I would put the overall points chase back to the way it was last year," Johnson said. "... When you have millions and millions of dollars in it plus the hard work that goes into it, 500-mile races and 36 races a year, your point system needs to reflect what your series is about, and that's consistency. I don't think our system reflects that right now from the competition side.
"From the entertainment side, you couldn't ask for anything better. From my standpoint in the final 10, I can't have a DNF. I've got to worry about other teammates who are helping their teammates out. There are so many different things that change the competition."
Johnson isn't going to concern himself too much with all of that. Since joining the Cup Series, Johnson has been a fixture among the top 10 thanks to consistency. He knows he's capable of keeping that up through the final 10, and if that's what he needs to do to win a title in 2004, that's what he's going to focus on.
"The system is set, and everybody has to race under it," Johnson said. "So we can only worry about what we can control and try to win a championship."
Defending champ Matt Kenseth said he feels a little sorry for Johnson, though. He believes Johnson's at a considerable disadvantage because, as he sees it, Johnson is having the same kind of season that won him the title last year -- but Johnson doesn't enjoy the cushion that Kenseth had.
"For an example, let's use myself," Kenseth said, pondering the situation. "We've had things happen where we've made mistakes that usually a championship team can't do and yet, if we stay in the position we're in right now, with 10 races to go we can still have a good shot at the championship.
"I hope that whoever does the best job all year still gets to win the championship. Just for an example, Jimmie Johnson does do a great job for the first 26 races and has one part of bad luck in the last 10 races where if he would have had it early, it wouldn't have mattered, and he loses (the title) to somebody that had a lot of bad luck and was 400 or 500 points behind (after 26 races), I don't think that would be fair."
For his part, Johnson isn't worried about fair. He's worried about racing and trying to win. He's done a good job of that all year. In 18 races, he's finished among the top 10 an astounding 14 times.
That success continued at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday when Johnson cruised to a second-place finish in the Tropicana 400, finishing behind Tony Stewart. The finish widened his lead in the points race, but he understands that means little right now.
What means more is that the team is clicking on all cylinders and has the confident swagger of a group primed for the final 10 events of the year -- and a serious challenge for their first-ever Cup title.
"Everybody is feeling it," Johnson said of his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy team. "The guys are feeling so much confidence and there's so much momentum right now that I think it will end up helping down the road."
And speaking of down the road, Johnson said he's already got an eye on one guy he and every other driver will need to battle to win the title. Under this format, the 10th place driver is still only 50 points out of first. If Jeff Gordon fell all the way to 10th, that still puts a guy who is almost always solid at the end of every season in position to win.
When it comes to that, though, Johnson said he's learned a thing or two from Gordon -- whose steady resolve down the stretch has won him four titles. With a fourth-place finish on Sunday, Gordon is 243 points behind Johnson in third place.
Johnson said that he and his teammate/team owner Gordon will continue to work together as they have all year. But he said when it comes down to race day for those final 10 events of the year, it's going to be every man for himself.
"It will be different for us," Johnson said of having to battle Gordon for a title. "Obviously, we have raced against each other for wins and competed at that level, but a championship will be a whole new thing. As far as I am concerned, that is a good problem to have. And I will look forward to racing him for the championship."
"We have a very good relationship, but it is definitely going to be stressful," adds Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus. "What we are doing here within these four walls at the 24 and 48 shop is absolutely incredible and never been done before in this sport.
"If we get down to the final 10 events and we are battling for the championship, there is nobody I would rather race against than Jeff Gordon and (his crew chief) Robbie Loomis. But on the same note there is nobody I would rather beat."
Johnson said he isn't ready to focus on that, yet. He has two points races to win if he wants to be champion, and the second one doesn't start until he closes out the first 26 races among the top 10.
"We basically have a shorter season," Johnson said. "We have 26 and then it starts over. You have two point seasons in the course of a year in a sense. You've got to make the cut in the first one and the second one is for owner prestige and all the money. You just have another points race in effect."
Johnson said he feels confident that he'll be around for that "other" points race. He just wishes the system didn't put so much emphasis on those last 10 events.
Still, he's going to press for more victories or high finishes between now and the Chase cutoff date.
"I think that is important," he said. "Hopefully we can close out after race 26 as the champion and start up front and hopefully hang on to it. It obviously means less this year to be the points leader right now mathematically. Emotionally I think there's still a lot more riding on it."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.