It's the team, not destiny, they say

Updated: November 18, 2004, 11:34 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson
You've seen this story before. Last month, in fact. Those guys called themselves Idiots and transported themselves to Little League, having fun as they danced to Boston's first major-league baseball title in 86 years.

These guys, however, are no idiots.

In fact, the genius it took for Hendrick Motorsports' No. 48 Chevrolet team to regroup after a string of failures had left them 247 points out of first with six Nextel Cup races to go is immeasurable.

And to weather the loss of so many high-ranking members of the team, not to mention friends and loved ones, in a plane crash three weeks ago and still manage to win four races in five tries? It defies logic.

That the team has managed to have fun throughout, though, is the true vim that drives the story. It's the reason this group relishes being 18 points out of first place heading into Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Why? Because it's simply more fun to be on the offensive and come from behind. It makes the celebrations in Victory Lane sweeter.

It's the reason this team won't think about the Nextel Cup championship until the checkered falls, because it's simply more fun to achieve than to dream.

"Our team has been given a second chance at getting back in this chase for the championship and I am not going to stress out about it," Johnson says, sitting achingly close to points leader Kurt Busch. "I am just going to go out and have fun and it will happen if it is meant to be."

It's hard to refute a destiny argument for this team. Certainly, three straight engine failures leading up to the final, 10-race shootout cast tremendous doubt that the man who spent much of the first 26 races atop the standings would run the table. And then when his engine overheated with seven races remaining and he finished 37th at Talladega Superspeedway, doubt grew. When, at wit's end, Johnson wrecked the very next time out and finished 32nd at Kansas Speedway, the feelings of dispair were palpable.

"We had some failures," Johnson said. "I made mistakes. We lost some momentum. Something happened. I don't know why or what."

All of this helps to explain why Johnson, who spent 26 of 35 weeks in the top five of the standings, is a sudden surprise contender for the title. He's even surprised himself.

"Before this run of races, I thought we were out of the championship," he said. "I didn't think that three guys would have problems. I figured one guy would go clean. But all three had problems and it brought us into it."

But crew chief Chad Knaus dismisses talk of destiny. He dismisses any talk that involves the team getting back into the race in the passive voice. While he puts the blame for the fall squarely upon the entire team's shoulders, he also places credit for the climb back up there, too.

"I don't believe in destiny," Knaus said. "You create your own destiny. It's just like there's no such thing as luck. Everything happens because of something somebody else has done. There are reasons for everything. You don't blow an engine for no reason. You don't crash for no reason. There's always a reason. I don't think it's destiny. I think it's who wants it the most right now."

And if you ask Johnson, it's his team. He loves the attitude in the race shop right now. It's distinguishable, he says, than from when the team was leading. It's more upbeat, it's more determined. It's more fun.

"Our team works the best in those situations," Johnson said. "When we've got to play defense, we have trouble. If we show up and you stack the odds against us, things happen for us. I don't know what it is, but we always do better. We don't have anything to lose at this point. They're letting us back into this and we're going to do all we can to win another race in Homestead."

And how's the team plan on doing that? By riding the same horse that has been so reliable this year. Johnson has posted a series-high 19 top-five finishes and eight victories. Much of the success has come while Johnson piloted Car No. 4859.

"Since we've been together and worked on this car, it's been a solid and stable car," Knaus said. "It's a great race car."

More important, according to Johnson, it's powered by a great race team.

"The best thing this Lowe's team can do is to act and feel like we did three weeks ago -- which is to say: 'We don't have a shot at it and we just need to go out there and win races,' because that's worked for us," Johnson said. "When we play offense, we do a lot better job that when we play defense. That's what we've all discussed on the race team. That's the way we're going to finish out the year.

"It's still amazing," he said. "We put ourselves in this situation to start with by winning, and we've brought ourselves back into it by winning. If we just keep that mindset, it'll take care of itself."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.

ALSO SEE