Johnson craves seat at head table

Originally Published: November 17, 2005
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson has accepted the inevitable. Unless Tony Stewart makes his first major mistake in the Chase for the championship, the best Johnson can do is finish second in the race for the Nextel Cup title.

"He is in control of the championship in my mind and I hate to admit that," Johnson lamented. "If I go out and do all that I can and lead the race and lead the most laps, then it's just in his hands from there as to where he finishes and what happens."

Alas, all Stewart has to do to win his second championship is finish ninth or better in Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If he can do that, it won't matter where any other driver finishes -- the title automatically will be Stewart's.

Only three drivers -- Johnson, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle -- have a mathematical chance of catching him, and all know they'll need some intervention. It's a far cry from last season, when five drivers had a legitimate chance at the title heading into the finale.

Johnson was one of them, beginning that race 18 points behind Kurt Busch. He did everything he could and finished second in the race, only to fall eight points shy of beating Busch for the title.

For Johnson, it was his second straight year finishing second in the points. Barring a shocking result in Sunday's race, he's on the verge of making it three in a row -- and Johnson knows how bad it will feel to watch someone else accept the trophy at the year-end banquet once again.

"We've been so close. To be sitting below the [banquet] stage and looking up again for the third time, if that's the case, is going to be tough," he said. "We really, really, really want a championship and we feel that we've done a great job really every year.

"To come up short, if we do come up short like the last two seasons, that's going to be tough. But at the same time, we're doing everything that we can and we just haven't been able to close the gap."

Truthfully, Johnson wasn't really that close in 2003 when Matt Kenseth wrapped up his title a week before the finale. But back then, a second-place finish in the standings was almost as good as winning it for the upstart Johnson.

It made his Hendrick Motorsports team hungry to take the next step, and it opened the 2004 season as the team to beat. Johnson dominated almost the entire year until a late-summer stumble knocked him out of the points lead. But under the new Chase format, he wasn't out of contention and used a string of four victories in five races to head to Homestead with a very, very good chance.

He's not in the same position this year to race for the title. It's Stewart's to win or lose, and that reality has Johnson, who is 52 points behind Stewart, second-guessing himself.

Johnson's only mistake of the Chase was in October at Talladega, Ala., where he was caught up in two different accidents. The second wreck ended his day early with a 31st-place finish that dropped him to fourth in the standings.

Stewart finished second that day, and Johnson now wonders what he could have done differently.

"I look at that and wish maybe we played the strategy that [Dale Jarrett] did where he sat at the back and stayed out of trouble and then came through and was even able to win the race," Johnson said. "We considered a lot of things at Talladega and we felt like the best thing for our team was to race for the win and to be up front and stay out of trouble that way and it didn't really play out."

Now Johnson, who badly wants a championship, fears he could end up as another Mark Martin -- a driver who has famously fallen short of a Cup title with four runner-up finishes. But instead of seeing the heartbreak in Martin's situation, Johnson chooses to look at Martin's competitiveness and the longevity of his career.

At 46, Martin is still a contender and realistically could finish second again this season if everything falls into place for him on Sunday.

"I look at Mark Martin and … he's been competitive and has been fighting for championships for really the majority of his career," Johnson said. "And is he 46. With that in mind, I still have a lot of really good years ahead of me to win championships.

"This sport is so competitive, you don't know how long you're going to be able to ride certain waves. I don't think our wave has peaked. But we've been very close. We've been in the hunt. And there are no guarantees for the future."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press