- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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With four wins in a row, Jimmie Johnson has made history in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. A win Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway would make history of another sort, as he would be the first driver in NASCAR's modern era to win five consecutive races.
He also could become the first driver to win two championships under the Chase format that debuted in 2004, backing up the title he earned in 2006.
Crew chief Chad Knaus would love to head out of Florida with both marks, but his eyes are on the bigger prize.
"Obviously, the championship is by far and above more important than winning five races in a row," Knaus said Tuesday during a NASCAR conference call. "I can promise you we definitely would love to win five races in a row. Homestead is a great racetrack for us. It's a place I really enjoy going to. I actually look forward to going to that race even before they changed it [by adding variable banking]. I liked it a lot when it was a flat track.
"I'd like to go and get that victory for a lot of reasons. To win the championship would be great. To win five in a row would be great. To close out the season and win the championship with five victories in a row would be phenomenal. We've got our sights set on that. Hopefully, we can have ourselves in position to do that and have a car capable of doing that. If not, we'll get the best finish that we possibly can and hopefully come out with the championship."
If so, Steve Letarte will be atop Jeff Gordon's pit box wishing things had turned out a little differently. With six wins this year -- including two in the Chase -- Gordon's season has been one most drivers would trade anything for.
This year, though, it won't be enough for the title unless Johnson stumbles in the Ford 400. Gordon and his team have done lots of things right -– it's just that Johnson has been even stronger.
At least Letarte won't have to worry about whether to go all out for the win, or cruise around and settle for a spot inside the top 18, which is the dilemma Knaus and Johnson will face. Rest assured, Letarte gladly would trade places instead of trailing by 86 points.
"I think we're really kind of pushed into a corner. The only strategy we can have this weekend is just try to go down there and win, end the season on a good note," Letarte said. "We've had a wonderful season so far. We have the opportunity to finish with 30 top-10s. It would be a remarkable goal. So just go down there, try to hold our heads up, put the best car out there and let the chips fall where they may."
Gordon's 29th top-10 finish came Sunday in Phoenix, and he lost 56 points to Johnson. While Johnson was in Victory Lane, Gordon came up to congratulate him and waved a white towel as if surrendering.
Gordon said he feels the championship battle is over, although he gladly will take the championship if fate or simply bad racing luck derails Johnson and Knaus. Letarte, though, certainly took Gordon's gesture as it was intended –- unlike fans who think it means Gordon simply won't try this weekend.
"Mathematically, we're still in it, but the opportunity for one of us to go out and beat one another by 18 positions without having a failure or an accident is not really realistic," Letarte said. "We haven't even been running quite like we want here lately. [And] I think our worst finish is 11th in the Chase.
"Jimmie's guys are definitely hitting on all eight cylinders. [But] if they make a mistake, we'll be extremely happy and try to jump on it and capitalize and bring this championship home. But, you know, when it comes down to it, we really want to race it out at Homestead. When you get to an 86-point gap, that's not really racing it out, that's more who is going to have the luckier day. We really don't want it to come down to luck. We want it to come down to racing on the track."
In the Chase for the second time in just his second full year as a crew chief, Letarte has learned -- as have the 10 crew chiefs of the remaining Chase drivers behind his team -- just what it takes to win a championship.
For three years, it seemed every Chase driver had at least one bad race. This year, Gordon has eight top-10s in nine races -- and still trails his teammate by a sizable margin.
So if Gordon and Letarte are in the Chase again next year, the crew chief knows the stakes have been raised.
"As far as my experience in the Chase, I've just learned to not underestimate your performance, not underestimate your opponent," Letarte said. "I think while we've definitely hit our goals at some tracks, we've missed them at others. We're finishing like we need to every other year but this year.
"So you have to take every year for what it's worth and go out there and you need to shoot to win 10 races. At the rate that some of these cars are running, and as good as some of the cars are running, it's definitely going to take an impressive average finish to win the championship this year."
Knaus doesn't need even a top-10 to end the Chase, but he knows how he'll approach the weekend. It's the way he's gone into every other race this season.
"We need to get down there, get into qualifying trim, start practice and try to qualify as best we can so we can get a good pit selection for the race on Sunday," Knaus said. "Then, once the race begins, we just want to do kind of the same as we've done all year, which is just get out there and ride, wait until the last hundred miles to go or so and then kind of pick it up."
And maybe pick up a fifth straight win and a second straight championship along the way.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Jimmie Johnson can become the first driver in NASCAR's modern era to win five straight races. But crew chief Chad Knaus has his eyes on the bigger prize: a second consecutive Cup title.