published Saturday, October 17th, 2009

Young: Johnson in good shape, but don’t crown him yet

OK, so the Chase is over, right? I mean, Jimmie Johnson already is past his worst Chase tracks, won at California and now has slam dunks ahead of him at Charlotte and at Martinsville.

The 48 is the best out-front team in NASCAR history, so it’s over.

Not so fast. Johnson indeed has taken the points lead, and in any other year he might be 100-plus up, but not this year. Remarkable starts by Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya have kept the pressure on Johnson and will prevent, at least for the next couple of races, Johnson and Chad Knaus from putting the Chase in cruise mode.

While many are handing Johnson his fourth consecutive title, those in contention aren’t.

“It’s really phenomenal what we’ve been able to do,” Martin said. “There’s no reason other than just the odds that say we can’t sustain what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing it long enough and actually gotten stronger in the last 10 or 12 races based on our experience together.”

Doesn’t sound like he’s giving anything up.

The same might be said for some other guys, including Jeff Gordon, who need help to make a run at the title. With the three above-mentioned drivers averaging an absurd 3.5-average finish in the first four races, it’s hard not to get discouraged.

“The only chance we have in the championship is for that average obviously to change,” Gordon said. “Those three guys have been on a tear — they’ve been consistent and very competitive and leading laps — and you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for that. We’ve been making a strong comeback, but it’s certainly not going to be enough unless we win the next six races or something.”

Johnson, as he’s always done, isn’t going to tempt fate and start talking title, but his comment Thursday when asked about his chances should make the others cringe a bit.

“We feel good about things,” he said. “Obviously the win last week is a big confidence-booster and helps the team and gives us some momentum — those types of things. We’re at another great track. We have a lot of great tracks coming up for us. I’m certainly optimistic, but at the same time, the past is the past and we have to go out and do our jobs.”

Of course, if he adds a sixth Charlotte win to his resume and others have problems, it could almost be over. For now, Johnson says he’s enjoying the incredible competition.

“It’s hard to think that after four races, when you’ve already got three of those guys that have made it that far, somebody of those three won’t go ahead and finish it that way,” he said. “That’s what makes this Chase cool. To have a Chase that’s that tight and that competitive, nobody is going to back into this championship. If you win it, you’ve got something to be proud of this year.”

about Lindsey Young...

Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...

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