View From the Couch: Homestead

At the beginning of the season I said that Jimmie Johnson’s team “is the best in Cup until someone rips the mantle from his shoulders”. Carl Edwards gave it a great tug, but for the third straight season the banner, confetti, trophy and 7 million dollar check are still in Johnson’s possession. Johnson has raised the bar in the Chase so high that 3 wins, 8 top 5’s and an 8.0 average finish aren’t enough. That was Edwards’ line for the final ten races but he will be left to ponder his rash move at Talladega as the reason for not having a shot at the Cup entering Homestead. His aggression led to a big wreck that rendered him to a 29th place finish and 81 points. The wreck also took out Chasers Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Kevin Harvick. As a result Johnson had few Chase competitors to deal with and finished a safe 9th. The finish was worth 134–62 more than Edwards. Edwards wound up losing the Chase by seven. It sounds heartbreaking, but Johnson had to endure a long winter in 2004 when he lost the championship to Kurt Busch by five points.

So how did the #48 team win three straight titles to become the only team since Cale Yarborough drove the #11 for Junior Johnson? The team has been good enough to assume they can make the Chase with ease. So instead they have turned their focus to going for wins and most importantly, testing and fine-tuning their cars with the final ten races in mind. While a lot of attention is paid to the teams winning races and leading the points, the #48 circles the final ten races and funnels all of their effort towards the Chase. It’s not a coincidence that Johnson has peaked at the right time the last three years. Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch have accumulated huge point leads during the regular season but because of the Chase rules, they will always fall back to the pack like a late-race caution. It’s almost like the #48 team says why waste the effort on points leads, when it will only be taken away come September? So the #48 team essentially boils a 36 race grind down to a 10 race performance. It’s reminiscent of the late 90’s Yankees teams that won three in a row. Those teams often regarded the regular season with nonchalance, but once the playoffs rolled around they were a juggernaut. It requires a special team to have the luxury to use the regular season as one big dress-rehearsal, but that’s exactly what the #48 team have done.

Can the #48 team seriously consider 4 in a row? Yes. Obviously it’s never easy to talk about next year while the champagne smell is still fresh, but the #48 is one of a handful of teams that can pose a serious threat. Barring a serious breakthrough from another team, I can’t see the trophy not going to a Hendrick, Roush or Gibbs team. That automatically puts Johnson on a short list. The new testing ban only ensures that the top teams will stay that way in 2009. There is always the concern of other teams catching up to the #48, complacency or other things pulling Johnson’s attention away from the job, but unlike other team sports, there is no salary cap so most of the talent has stayed intact since 2002. As long as the team stays together and Hendrick provides cutting edge support, the #48 will remain the team to beat.

Other Thoughts

  • After a good race, no surprises (despite ESPN’s constant reminders that something crazy could happen), and an historic championship for Jimmie Johnson, the only thing I can say is, “finally my Sunday’s are clear again!” It sounds harsh, but admit it, you’re thinking it too. And if you aren’t, your wife definitely is.

  • Does anyone else think Nationwide’s commercial that shows Kevin Harvick doing donuts in a cul-de-sac sends the right message about safe driving?

  • The top 35 race finished with Red Bull Racing passing JTG-Daugherty Racing for the final safe spot. RBR switched Brian Vickers to the #84 car for the Homestead race to help crack the top 35. The move paid off and could set RBR up for an even better season in 2009.

  • Now that DEI and Chip Ganassi have merged, they have one empty yet sponsored seat. If they haven’t already done so, I recommend that they call AJ Allmendinger immediately. He finished 11th at Homestead and is clearly the best driver available for 2009.

  • Two drivers on the cusp of a breakout win: David Ragan and David Reutimann. Ragan could have a huge season with Roush, while hopefully MWR can continue to provide quality cars for Reutimann. Both really established themselves in their second seasons.

The season’s over but you can still hang out with One Bad Wheel all winter. Nothing changes here. We’ll look back at 2008, review the teams, pass out some awards, goof off and start looking to 2009. Only 90 days until Daytona!