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It's Miami, the Keys, the tropics...and Jimmie Johnson isn't cooling off a bit

 Jimmie Johnson can't stop smiling...it's just been that kind of year. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Have all the other guys already packed up their tools for the winter? Or maybe they just packed Speedos instead of speed-tools for this trip.
   Looks like anyone looking for an upset or a surprise here Sunday will first have to get around the amazing Jimmie Johnson.
   Now teammate Jeff Gordon may be keeping an eye out for Jack Roush's Fords, which have dominated here over the years.
   But those guys have been rather flat lately.
   And Johnson is flat bad this fall, with last weekend's win at Phoenix all but clinching the title.
   Adding more fuel to the 'It was over at Dover' theory, Johnson, whose win at Dover Downs back in September pinpointed him as the odds-on favorite to win this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, won the pole here Friday for the season finale.
    Johnson's Dover win didn't put him atop the standings; that leap didn't come until two weeks later when he won at Charlotte. But it was at Dover, in only the second race of the 10-race chase, that Johnson became Mr. Inevitable.
   Now he needs only to finish 25th or better Sunday to clinch his fourth straight title…and team owner Rick Hendrick's record-tying ninth.
   Johnson, who has been giving press conferences almost non-stop the past few weeks, certainly isn't letting all that be any distraction.
   "When the sun is setting, it's hard to find your pit box here on this pit road, so I'm glad to get that first pit stall," Johnson said after his lap of 173.919 mph.
   "After Texas, I'm not taking anything for granted."
   And Mark Martin, the only man with a chance to catch Johnson, and a long-shot at that, isn't giving up yet. He'll start in the second row, just ahead of Tony Stewart.
   The day's most disappointed: Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.
   Well, there may be a few guys racing Sunday. Jeff Gordon, for one – trying to catch teammate Martin for the bridesmaid honor in this year's title run. Gordon would have to pick up 62 points on Martin for that.
    "That's what our goal is," Gordon said.
    But he will have to come from mid-pack to do it. "We didn't qualify great here the last time, but we still finished well," Gordon insists. "It's been a pretty good track for us recently."  
    For Gordon it's another bittersweet end to a season. His last tour championship was back in 2001, though he's made some valiant bids since.  
    "I'm very proud of what that team's accomplished," Gordon said of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. "I'm proud to have been a part of it from the beginning.
    "But it's a bittersweet thing -- because we won the championship in '01, when they ran their first race.  They watched us win that championship. And maybe '02 I finished ahead of him in points.  But I don't think I've finished ahead of him in points since then."
    And Gordon says if you liked Johnson's title run this season, you'll love what he anticipates in 2010: "Those guys are on a roll right now, and I don't really see it slowing down.  I think they're very capable of doing it again next year."
    So maybe seven championships is the goal? That would put Johnson right there with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
   "Seven's a big number," Gordon, a four-time champ himself, muses.  "That's tough to get to. 
     "I remember a lot of people telling me -- or asking me: 'Oh, man, you know, seven's in reach, seven's in reach.'"
    For Gordon himself. But that was eight years ago, when Gordon was just 30. And Gordon now may only drive another three or four seasons.
    Johnson's mastery of the 10-race chase format is historic. Maybe the chase format should change.
   "If they continue to keep the 10 races in the chase that are in there now, I don't know if there's anybody better than Jimmie and his team at those 10 races, those 10 tracks," Gordon says.  
    "I feel the 10 tracks in the chase are not my best 10. It's sort of our Achilles heel. 
    "But we're so strong throughout the whole season -- being consistent over 36 races -- I think the old points system favors us."
    Indeed, based on Best Average Finishes over the entire season so far, Johnson is only third-best, behind Tony Stewart and Gordon. And if that BAF were used to determine this year's championship Stewart would be leading the standings but only by three points over Gordon and 10 points over Johnson – making this 400 a three-man battle for the title.
    As it has played out, for Gordon and Martin both, this year's title race unraveled in that eight day span, with the topsy-turvy Talladega 500 and then the Texas 500. At both events Gordon and Martin had great opportunities to put Johnson in a deep hole….
    "I think Bristol should be in the Chase, personally," Gordon says. "Especially right now with the economy the way it is  -- and trying to build excitement.  And Michigan's always been one of my favorites. I think Indy as well; it would be cool if Indy was in there. 
    "But my worst three tracks are in the chase.  That's the downside for me. But that's what made winning in Texas earlier this year so special.  Unfortunately we didn't back that up with a good performance the second time."
   While Johnson is a fast finisher to the season, Gordon sees his own strength as being a quick starter: "We were strong in California.  We were strong in Vegas. Our strength came in the first 10 races; we were really consistent. 
    "Then some other teams came on, and we lost a little bit.  I feel we got it back right before the chase, and we've been solid in the chase, though New Hampshire (15th) bit us: The first race of the chase, and we didn't have a good performance, and that got us behind right from the beginning."
    Though 38, Gordon insists he's not looking for an end-game to his career quite yet: "As long as I'm healthy and competitive, and we have sponsorship, and we're out there enjoying ourselves, I'm going to keep doing it.  
    "I don't like to put a number on that. Things can happen in a hurry. 
    "But right now things are going well. My back is better. We're having a good year. Seasons like this add years to my career. 
    "Seasons like last year take away. Last year I was frustrated, and not feeling good.  I was like 'Give me a couple more years.'
    "Now I'm like 'Oh, four, five, who knows.'"
    Ironically Gordon himself was the 'closer' in the negotiations with Lowe's for Johnson:
    "I'll never forget it," Gordon says of that day. "I'll never forget sitting there and having the CEO, Bob Tillman, flat-out look at me straight in the face and ask 'Do you really believe Jimmie can win races and win championships?'
    "I feel like I was honest: I told him I believed with Hendrick equipment and the right people around him that, yes, he was capable. 
    "Now how much of that did I believe was going to come true? I wasn't sure, I wasn't sure.
    "Jimmie had a great talent, but I had no idea. 
     "You don't know how much they have until you put them in your equipment. 
     "You don't know what kind of crew chief Chad Knaus was going to be. 
     "But I did see something in Jimmie I thought could be special. 
     "I had no idea it was going to take off."
    And now everyone in the sport is wondering just when Johnson and Knaus will cool off.
    Gordon says he's watching another angle – the business side of success: "The downside is the more championships you win, the more you want to capitalize on opportunities that come your way, from a marketing standpoint, from a business standpoint."
    And then there's yet another angle too, Gordon warns: "Whether or not you get bored with it."
    And Johnson and Knaus are showing no signs of boredom yet.

The starting lineup for Sunday's Miami Ford 400, the 10th and final race of NASCAR's championship chase


What will happen next year? Pressure is cumulative, will a 4th add to or remove the pressure from Knaus and Johnson? There needs to be a change, if not in the general format, at least in the tracks. Why not just rotate the tracks so we don't have the same tracks in the Chase consecutive years. Charlotte this year, Atlanta next, Homestead this year, Daytona next.

The old system rewarded consistency during the entire season. Now that consistency gets you into the Chase but that's about it. But consistency during the Chase is rewarded also so what's the difference? The leader going into the Chase gets hosed. How about a formula for the points leader, i.e., if you have a 100 point lead, you get 15 bonus points, 200, 30, etc.. Either way, old system or Chase, you will still have problems with dominant teams and drivers stinking up the show but it is still great to watch....

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