Johnson hitting the homestretch to title

Published 6:33 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2006

It’s a one-man race to the Nextel Cup title, with Jimmie Johnson in complete control of his destiny.

His second-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday gave Johnson a firm hold on the Chase for the championship leaderboard and sends him into the season-finale needing only a decent run to finally grab his first NASCAR championship.

It’s a position few thought Johnson would be in nine weeks ago, when he crashed in the Chase opener and dropped all the way to ninth in the standings. But he’s been flawless for five straight races, and hasn’t been lower than second in any of them.

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Now it may finally pay off for him: Johnson only needs to finish 12th or better at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch the title.

“I never felt we were out of it,” he said. “I never conceded and I just said, ‘Let’s go all out, we have nothing to lose.”’

Johnson will have history on his side next weekend in Homestead, where he’ll start the race with a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth and only four drivers even mathematically eligible to catch him.

But don’t bet on it happening. The points leader going into the final race of the season has failed to win the championship only twice in NASCAR history, and the last time was in 1992 when Alan Kulwicki overcame a 30-point hole in the finale.

That doesn’t mean it can’t happen this time, though, and it wouldn’t surprise many people to see Johnson cough it up.

After all, he’s lost two titles before under the Chase format, and has a habit of dominating during the regular season only to collapse in the playoffs. So he’s all too aware that a blown engine, flat tire and plain ol’ bad luck could steal this one from him.

He doesn’t plan on worrying about it, though. “I’ll go to the golf course tomorrow and have some fun and relax, and stay busy Tuesday and Wednesday and just try to let the week hurry by,” he said.

And even though he’s second in the standings, Matt Kenseth has had a miserable Chase for the championship. After his 13th-place run in Phoenix, he all but conceded the title to Johnson.