The pit crew for Nascar driver Jimmy Johnson finish his final pit stop as he went on the win the Mountain Dew Southern 500 Sunday, Nov. 14, 2004, at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, S.C.
AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain
HOMESTEAD, Fla. Jimmie Johnson went from top contender to also-ran to unbeatable, and now he has all the momentum heading into the last race of the Nextel Cup season.
Johnson led the standings until a few bad results before the start of NASCAR's new 10-man, 10-race playoff-style championship race. A few more subpar performances at the beginning of the Chase for the Nextel Cup and he seemingly was out of the running.
Then came the startling turnaround: Four victories in the last five races have given Johnson a chance at the title heading into Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
He still trails series Kurt Busch by 18 points, and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin are all very much in it, bunched within 82 points of Busch in the closest Cup championship ever.
''There's a lot of pressure that I feel (Busch's) team is under,'' Johnson said. ''We've been in that position through this season and we've had bad luck with that pressure on our shoulders.
''I like the position that both Hendrick cars are in. We're very close to Kurt in points. We just have to go out, be aggressive, race hard. That's what both teams are very good at.''
There are countless possibilities for the top five going into the race, but it all starts with a victory.
Johnson can win the championship with another win on Sunday if Busch finishes second or lower without leading a lap.
Gordon, 21 points behind Busch, can win the title if he wins the race and gets the second five-point bonus for leading the most laps, if Busch finishes third or lower and doesn't lead a lap, fourth or lower and leads a lap, or fifth or lower and leads the most laps.
''I think it's nerve-racking and intense no matter where you're at,'' Gordon said. ''You've got to go out there and run hard.''
Gordon figures Busch is definitely in the best position, though.
''The closest thing that I have to compare to this would be when Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and myself were going for the championship in '97,'' said Gordon, who wound up beating Jarrett for the title by 14 points that year. ''I had the points lead by a small margin, and it was a good position to be in because it was our championship to lose, and we knew that, Those other guys really had to be on the huge offense.
''If I had my choice, I'd want to be in Kurt's position, but I do like the fact we get to go out there and go for broke. We know we have to lead laps and win the race.''
Busch appeared well on the way to the championship before an engine failure slowed his momentum at Atlanta and let the other contenders back into the fray. Since then, he has finished 10th at Phoenix and sixth last Sunday at Darlington.
Still, if Busch wins the last race, he will take his first Cup title, no matter what the other drivers do. He will also win if he finishes second and earns the five-point bonus for leading at least one lap in the race.
''We need to go out and attack the racetrack this weekend, to lead laps and to make sure that we do our job at the end of the race,'' Busch said.
The job is tougher for Earnhardt (72 points behind) and Martin (82 back).
A victory by Earnhardt will give him the title if he leads the most laps and Busch finishes 10th or lower, Johnson 10th or lower and Gordon ninth or lower and none of the challengers leads a lap.
''We dug ourselves a pretty big hole at Darlington,'' said Earnhardt, who finished 11th there after pitting late in the race for a battery change. ''It will be difficult to climb out and still win this championship. We're going to have to be the best team at Homestead as well as the luckiest.''
Martin, a four-time series runner-up, would need even more good fortune than Earnhardt.
If Martin wins Sunday and gets bonus points for leading the most laps, he needs Busch to finish 19th or lower, Johnson 13th or lower and Gordon 12th or lower, with none of them leading a lap. It wouldn't matter where Earnhardt finished, as long as he didn't lead a lap.
''We're going to go to Homestead and race for a win,'' said Martin, who finished second at Darlington to stay alive in the Chase. ''I don't really think all of those other guys are going to have a bad race, but we can't control that. We can only control what we're doing on the track and try to get the best finish we can.''
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