Johnson ‘Throwback’ Style, Potent Hendrick Ride Fuels Run Toward Cup Title

Charlotte, NC – It?s hard to imagine Jimmie Johnson as a ?throwback? to the old days of NASCAR. His good looks and perfect corporate driver speak hardly conjure up visions of Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott or Harry Gant.

Yet Johnson joined that select company, which also includes Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, when he won his fourth consecutive NASCAR Nextel Cup race Sunday. The victory at Phoenix International Raceway put the California cool racer in rarified air and a dominant position to win his second-consecutive Cup title.

Not bad for a guy who couldn?t drive a nail when he was a regular in the NASCAR Busch Series.

Johnson roared out of the American Speed Association ranks making a trio NBS starts in 1998 posting only a 34th-place qualifying average and a 24th-place finishing average in those three efforts. A year later, Johnson made five Busch Series starts, his best effort coming at Milwaukee where he finished seventh.

In 2000, Johnson wheeled the No. 22 Herzog Motorsports entry in 31 of 32 Busch Series events never scoring a Top-5 finish. His most memorable moment came at Watkins Glen where he launched over the then Turn 1 sand trap and came to a dead stop in the foam retaining barriers. Video of Johnson exiting the car and exulting arms raised that he somehow survived the death-defying incident are still a staple on all-time crash/impact highlight shows.

So how did this guy get to be so good?

Two words ? Hendrick Motorsports.

Okay, maybe it?s not that simple. There?s no doubt Johnson has a lot of talent, and you have to admire his determination and tenacity in racing his way toward the title this season. While everyone else seemed to be points racing, Johnson has been balls out thrashing his way toward the front of the pack ? especially the past four events.

While nobody will confuse Johnson with the rough and tumble Curtis Turner, his take no prisoners attitude has been a refreshing break from the Nancy Boy points racer style of most of the remaining ?Chasers? this year.

While everyone has been riding around, Johnson has scored 10 wins in 35 Cup races this season. That?s pretty stout. Of course having the best organization behind him doesn?t hurt.

In all, Hendrick Motorsports has won more than half of the Cup races this season. In addition to Johnson?s 10 trophies, Jeff Gordon has six wins and Kyle Busch one. Even perennial also-ran Casey Mears has a victory this season, a real testament as to just how good the Hendrick effort is. It you total it all up, that?s 18 wins for the car dealership king Hendrick and his merry band of racers.

Johnson also has the best team on the planet these days. His flawless pit crew is either first or second with Matt Kenseth?s bunch on each stop and say what you will about Chad Knaus, he and the Hendrick engineering crew have been making the right adjustments to get Johnson to the front and keep him there late in the race all season.

It?s an impressive effort to be sure. Think the multi-car effort of Carl Kiekhaefer and 50 years ago when they dominated the NASCAR scene with 52 wins in 190 races over the 1955-56 seasons. Hendrick has notched a modern day equivalent of that with 27 race wins over the past two seasons. It?s a perfect storm of driver, car and organization and something we probably won?t see again for awhile ? like next year.

Nuts and Bolts ?

Johnson has an 86-point lead over Jeff Gordon heading into the final race of the 2007 season at Homestead Miami Speedway this weekend. Johnson can clinch the championship with an 18th-place finish regardless of what any other driver does in the race.

The last driver to win 10 races in a season was Jeff Gordon ? who won 13 in 1998. In case you were wondering about when the other drivers listed accomplished their four-race win streak, here’s the list –

1976 – Cale Yarborough – Richmond, Dover, Martinsville, North Wilkesboro

1981 – Darrell Waltrip – Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Rockingham

1987 – Dale Earnhardt – Darlington, North Wilkesboro, Bristol, Martinsville

1991 – Harry Gant – Darlington, Richmond, Dover, Martinsville

1992 – Bill Elliott – Rockingham, Richmond, Atlanta, Darlington

1993 – Mark Martin – Watkins Glen, Brooklyn, Bristol, Darlington

1998 – Jeff Gordon – Pocono, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, Michigan

Yarborough, Waltrip, Earnhardt and Gordon each won the championship the year they captured four races in a row. The last driver to win five in a row was Richard Petty in 1971.

Bowtie Dominance ?

Johnson?s victory Sunday was the 26th in 36 Cup races this season for Chevy besting the Bowtie brigade?s best-ever season of 25 wins in 1958.

That year, Rex White, Buck Baker, Bob Welborn, Speedy Thompson, Jack Smith, Fireball Roberts, Jim Paschal, Jim Reed, all scored wins behind the wheel of a Chevy, but Lee Petty won the championship driving an Oldsmobile.

Chevy can also earn another mark for most Top-10s in a season by a single driver (?Modern Era?) at Homestead this weekend. Gordon has an amazing 29 Top-10s in 35 races this season tying Dale Jarrett?s record set in a Ford en route to the 1999 Cup title.

Shout Out To Kenseth ?

Lost in the Jimmie-Jeffy battle for the Cup title has been the effort of Matt Kenseth and the No. 17 Roush Ford.

Kenseth has rallied from the dead ? as in dead last, 12th in the Chase standings ? to sixth in the points with one race remaining. With a fifth at Martinsville, fourth at Atlanta, second at Texas and third-place finish at Phoenix Sunday, Kenseth is the hottest driver on the tour next to Johnson.

Save for some crashes and mechanical failures in the early Chase races where he led almost every event, Kenseth could easily be battling Johnson for the title this weekend at Homestead.

Kenseth, who now has 78 Top-5 and 141 Top-10 finishes in 291 career Cup starts, is continuously overlooked as one of the top drivers on the tour because he?s not flashy or controversial off the track. That?s a shame because Kenseth managed to become an elite driver in the sport despite not always having the best equipment, something that Jimmy and Jeffy can?t ever relate to.

Tough Duty –

After spotting all of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races and nearly a dozen Busch Series races this season, this writer can safely say Phoenix is still the toughest NASCAR track on the circuit to spot.

Located in Turns 1-2 on top of the grandstand, the spotter’s stand allows you to see the entire track, but because the cars/trucks are racing away from you down the back straight and into Turn 3, there’s considerable difficulty seeing if you are clear to enter the corner.

Turns 3-4 are partially obscured by motorhomes and travel trailers parked in the corner to the point you often lose sight of your racer behind them. Additionally, it is impossible to tell if a car is down off the track in the inside pit apron or in the lower groove, even with the assistance of field glasses.

The exit of Turn 4 is really tricky given you have to pick up your car coming off the corner and clear it on to the front stretch.

Finally, I don’t know who decided the outside retaining walls needed to be painted aqua blue, but the color, along with tire smoke, makes it extremely hard to tell if there is a spin or incident in front of you.

While the spotter’s stand at Phoenix is probably not going to be relocated any time soon, here’s hoping PIR will at least paint the walls a different color the next time we visit the one-mile track.

Film At 11 ?

The most interesting off-track news at Phoenix this weekend came from NASCAR honcho Brian France.

In addressing the depressed television ratings numbers NASCAR has posted this season ? including a whopping 14 percent fall off last week?s race at Atlanta ? France stated “We’re probably a victim of that to some level. You have to remember we’re still posting big audiences, and our TV partners are very satisfied. We’d love to be growing at better rates, but we’re not contracting at all. We’re pretty satisfied that story lines in the future and things go on that we’ll be fine.”

Not contracting?

I guess 14 percent for the Atlanta race and across the board lower ratings for almost all the Cup events this year is not a contraction. And since when is NASCAR citing Katie Couric?s dismal nightly news numbers or the cancellation of ?24? a benchmark to its television success?

Mr. France and NASCAR might want to take a more focused long look at the flagging TV ratings and less than expected crowds at race events this season (the Homestead ‘Championship’ event this weekend isn’t a sell out).

It’s time to concentrate on real problems and solutions, not creating PR spins to soften what is certainly a stall to the decade-long stratospheric growth NASCAR has enjoyed.

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