Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, October 4, 2010

Don't Crown Johnson Yet

Former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green is largely famous for a post-game tirade a few years back when he said of the Chicago Bears, "Now, if you wanna crown 'em, then crown their asses! But they are who we thought they were! That's why we took the damn field!"

Well, Jimmie Johnson is who we thought he was, but don't go crowning his ass (or anything else) just yet. Yes, he followed up his win at Dover with a strong second-place running Sunday at Kansas, and yes, he now has the points lead -- by eight over Denny Hamlin.

Cynics and pundits might be tempted to just hand Johnson his fifth straight Sprint Cup Series championship after Sunday's race -- where Johnson rebounded from an ill-handling car early to turn in a vintage Johnson performance -- but in the words of college football analyst Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend.

After all, the top 10 in points are closer at this point than they've ever been, with 10th-place Tony Stewart just 127 points back. The top eight in points are separated by just 85 points, and one bad run or bout of misfortune can leave Johnson in a hole. With seven races to go, that's a possibility.

I realize the series heads to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. next -- where Johnson has five career wins and three of the last four there -- and then Charlotte and Martinsville (all tracks very good for Johnson on paper), but there's no telling. Johnson might win at Fontana, or his engine might blow.

As strong as Johnson is at Martinsville, Hamlin is just as strong.

And don't forget ... Talladega is still looming on the horizon. Anything can happen there; theoretically, anyone but Clint Bowyer could leave Talladega the points leader. I realize Johnson has successfully navigated Talladega each of the last four years -- even in 2008, when the Big One seemed to claim literally every other Chase contender -- but that luck has to run out sooner or later, right?

If it sounds like I'm grasping at anything to avoid facing the reality of a fifth straight title from Johnson ... well, that might be true, but that doesn't make me wrong in anything I've said. On paper, the championship appears to be Johnson's for the taking. The tracks line up -- on paper -- and no one else has been quite as strong through three Chase races (not even Greg Biffle, who won at Kansas).

But you just never know. Fluke things happen. Parts break. Maybe Johnson finds himself around Sam Hornish Jr., like he did last year in Texas. Maybe he gets caught up in something else not of his doing. Maybe the No. 48 team makes another mistake, like they seemed to do in the regular season.

Or maybe Johnson dominates, wins two of the next three races and leaves everyone else scratching their heads. You never know.

Johnson might very well win his fifth straight title, but given how tight the points are, and some of the obstacles looming on the horizon, crown his ass at your own risk.

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