Fellow Chasers waiting to see if J.J. falters


For Jimmie Johnson, the task at hand is simple -- if you think finishing at least 12th in a Nextel Cup Series race such as the Ford 400 is simple, that is.

And with an amazing five straight top-2 finishes under his belt, it's easy to say the Nextel Cup Series championship race is a done deal. But one loose lug nut on a pit stop, one cut tire or simply an ill-handling race car can change all that.

Just ask Matt Kenseth. It wasn't that long ago that Kenseth was in line to win the title, but a series of ill-handling cars have left him 63 points behind Johnson heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday.

Or ask Jeff Burton, dubbed the new "Ice Man" by Dale Earnhardt Jr. just a few weeks ago. Burton's hopes faded fast when misfortune came his way.

So now, mathematically at least, Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin (both 90 points back) and Earnhardt Jr. (115 back) are the only drivers with a chance at the title -- assuming Johnson doesn't decide to skip the race to hang out and eat key lime pie in Key West.

And since that's unlikely, it really is Johnson's title to lose. Based on how he's run of late, it would be hard to bet against him.

If Johnson is hoisting the Nextel Cup come Sunday night, it will make the four years of near-hits a whole lot easier to take. He's finished second in points on two occasions and fifth two other times. In 2004, he missed winning the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup by just eight points.

"At the time it was really hard to swallow, and I'm not sure if time helps things go by. At the same time, my personality, I think I tried to learn from what went on," Johnson said. "I look at that year, and I don't feel like we left anything on the table. Last year, at one point in the race [at Homestead], we were the champion. I don't have any negative feelings from any of the years that we've been close but didn't deliver.

"I think [Tony Stewart] was just rock steady last year and outperformed us and we had some bad luck at Homestead [with a flat tire]. I still think he had a good enough night where he would have been the champion. We're just learning from those experiences, becoming a stronger, better race team and I couldn't be more proud of the race team and everything they are doing."

If Johnson doesn't finish in the top 12 at Homestead, he can still take the title by leading a lap and finishing at least 13th, or by leading the most laps and finishing 15th or better.

Kenseth is using the car that won at Michigan in August and Fontana back in February, but he finished just 14th with it last month at Charlotte. Kenseth's track record at Homestead isn't great (he has an average finish of 25.5), but he knows it's also not as bad as it looks on paper.

"It's going to take the No. 48 having some big problems for us to have a chance, but we have to make sure that we do our part to be there if something does happen so that we can capitalize."
-- Matt Kenseth

"Our finishes are kind of deceiving of how we've run there. Two engine failures have been a big cause for the average finish being so low, but I feel like we were competitive there last year and we had one of our better test sessions there earlier this year," Kenseth said.

Still, he knows passing Johnson in the standings over the final 400 miles for what would be his second championship isn't going to be easy.

"They definitely aren't good," Kenseth said of his chances at the title. "But, anything can happen. Really, all we can do is the best with what we have and see where we stand at the end of the day. We haven't run nearly as well as we did earlier in the year and it's definitely a bad time to be struggling the way we have recently.

"It's going to take the No. 48 having some big problems for us to have a chance, but we have to make sure that we do our part to be there if something does happen so that we can capitalize. It's a long shot at this point, but it's definitely possible."

Crew chief Robbie Reiser said the team is taking the chassis it feels most comfortable with and will simply hope for the best at this point.

"It's been frustrating over the past two months as our cars just haven't handled the way we need them to in order to compete," Reiser said. "We're working as hard as anyone to try and figure out the problem, and if I knew what it was, I'd fix it. But, this team has still got a lot of fight in them. They haven't quit by any means.

"If you look at how we've run the past seven or eight races, which is probably around 20th to 25th each week, and then see our finishes, you'll understand just how hard this team has worked on race day to get the best finish possible. I'm proud of these guys for doing that."

With the Busch Series title locked up long ago, Harvick is entering Homestead without a care in the world.

"We're excited just to be a part of it, to tell you the truth," Harvick said. "We've had a great year. We have had our ups and downs, but for the most part, it's been really good. So we're just having fun and racing as hard as we can and doing the things that we've done week in and week out all year.

"There's really not a lot of pressure, to tell you the truth. It's just go out and go as fast as you can and everybody knows that everybody's going to do everything they can do. It falls how it falls, and that's just kind of how we've looked at it since the season started."

Hamlin will go down fighting, bringing the car he used to dominate a pair of races at Pocono earlier this season. No matter where he ends up, it's still been a rookie season to remember.

Hamlin, though, would love to miraculously pull out a championship while he's at it.

"Looking back at the first nine races of the Chase, we have been pretty good. With the exception of some bad luck at Kansas and Charlotte, we are running top 10 almost every week and scored three top-5s even," Hamlin said. "It just goes to show that everyone is stepping it up and bringing their best every week and then working through bad luck.

"It's incredibly competitive out there but that's what we live for -- to run against the best and to win a championship."

Earnhardt Jr. would need the biggest miracle at what's traditionally been one of his worst tracks. He feels the gains made this year by crew chief Tony Eury Jr. will lead to a stronger run at Homestead, but no matter what happens, he considers the season a success.

"In the big picture, we've improved so much in one year that I'm optimistic for what we've got coming," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Our cars are consistently in the top 10 each week. Tony Jr. builds great race cars, and we've got the components to make it all happen.

"We'll do what we can this weekend, get as many points as we can, and see how it all turns out. We'll never quit trying."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.