Don't Look Now, But Here Comes Jimmie Johnson

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by Ryan Isley

Pick up this week’s Sports Illustrated and you won’t find Aaron Rodgers, Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder on the cover. For the second time in his career, NASCAR superstar and five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson graces the cover of the magazine.

This would have come as a shock if it was two weeks ago when after finishing 10th and 18th in the first two races of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup, Johnson was 10th in points, 29 behind the leader and basically left for dead.

But just like Jason Voorhees, Johnson always finds a way to come back. After finishing 2nd in the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway two weeks ago and winning the Hollywood Casino 400 last week at Kansas Speedway, Johnson is now in 3rd place, just four points behind leader Carl Edwards and three points behind Kevin Harvick.

Now the series is off to Charlotte Motor Speedway – where Johnson owns six career wins, 10 top-5 finishes and an average finishing position of 10.8 – for Saturday night’s Bank of America 500.

While it is well-known that Johnson has won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in each of the last five seasons, what is even more impressive is how much Johnson has lapped the field when it comes to the final 10 races each year.

Johnson is the only driver to make the Chase in each of the first eight seasons it has been in existence and has 20 wins in the 74 races he has run in the Chase to this point. While 20 out of 74 may not seem that dominant, consider that he is the only driver with double-digit wins in the Chase.  Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart are next with eight wins each.

As if 20 wins is not enough to prove his dominance, Johnson also has 42 top-five finishes, 57 top-10 finishes and has an average finish of 8.1 in the 74 races.

If you want some insight as to how Johnson has been able to win five consecutive series titles and put himself in the thick of the competition for number six, look no further than something he said after the race in Kansas.

“I could see the 99 (Carl Edwards) in front of me, I could see the 22 (Kurt Busch),” Johnson told SPEED Channel.  “As we started lapping guys, I really felt that if I could get Chase contenders a lap down that would be better for me long-term and just kept pushing all day long.”

Even in the middle of the fourth race in the Chase, Johnson was thinking of what he needed to do to help himself in the championship, not just that individual race. It is that kind of thinking that sets Johnson apart from most other drivers.

This would not be the first time Johnson has had to come from behind to win the championship after four races. While he was in first place each of the last three seasons following the fourth race of the Chase, he was in second place in 2007 and eighth place in 2006 and came from behind to win the championship both seasons. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until the eighth of 10 races in 2006 that Johnson finally took the points lead.

As for that Sports Illustrated cover jinx – Johnson isn’t buying it.

“It’s usually considered an honor to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine,” Johnson said. “I was fortunate enough to be on the cover of it back in ’08, and things turned out pretty well for us that year. So I don’t have any fear about being on this cover. None at all.”

He has a point – and at the end of the season he just may have a sixth straight championship.

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