Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Johnson unfazed by Chase pressure

MARTINSVILLE -- You watch him tilt his head and talk about pressure, about how there really isn't any despite the obvious stakes. You hear him talk about comfort and confidence and control, and the aura consumes you.

This is Tiger Woods heading for the back nine at Augusta on a Sunday, Reggie Jackson digging into the box in October, Michael Jordan with the ball in the waning moments of the NBA Finals.

Jimmie Johnson is going to get it done. Again. You can just sense it.

Today at Martinsville Speedway, fans will be watching one of the greatest clutch athletes of our time perform at one of his most successful venues. Leading a desperate field by 69 points, Johnson begins a five-race run for his third straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title. It's a feat only one driver, Cale Yarborough, has accomplished before.

A difficult achievement? You bet.

A foregone conclusion? Almost certainly.

Johnson's playoff statistics are absurd. In the past 21 Chase races, he's finished in the top 10 a whopping 90.4 percent of the time. His worst finish is 14th. He's won six times during that span and finished runner-up on another six occasions.

In other words, he's racing's version of Jackson -- aka "Mr. October" -- a man who is always good during the regular season but otherworldly once the leaves begin to change.

But this annual metamorphosis might be even more impressive than Jackson's. Considering racing's grueling demands -- the travel, the media, the sponsorship obligations, the practice runs, the qualifying, the ever-changing conditions of each individual track -- even the most confident athlete could be expected to wear down, to temporarily lose focus.

Johnson hasn't.

"I've just done well in pressure situations through my career," he said. "To be honest with you, most of my career was a pressure situation, just to establish myself and have a job to follow here."

Jeff Gordon -- who, not coincidentally, was the last driver to dominate over a significant stretch like Johnson is now -- was the one who pegged this potential from the start. Even though Johnson didn't begin his NASCAR career with a top-tier team, Gordon could see he had the characteristics necessary to succeed at the highest levels.

The patience. The intelligence. The well-time aggressiveness. These attributes prompted Gordon to recommend Johnson's hiring with Hendrick Motorsports.

"Not only was he an impressive driver, but he was very consistent and knew how to bring the equipment home in one piece and get the most out of it throughout the race," Gordon said. "That's what makes a championship-caliber driver. I think that he's only been able to add to that since he's come to Hendrick Motorsports."

He has. And like Woods, Johnson has earned a respect level from his peers that borders on intimidation.

Before the Chase started, reporters asked Clint Bowyer if he had any theories on what was wrong with Johnson. After all, the No. 48 team sat 369 points behind leader Kyle Busch before the points were reset for the playoffs.

Bowyer wasn't fooled.

"Look back at the history," Bowyer remembers saying.. "The 48 team is going to rise to the occasion. They're going to be a team to beat. As long as they're together, they're going to be a team to beat. It's up to all of us to catch up to them, learn from them. ... A team like that is not going to make a mistake. They're just not."

So far, they haven't. Johnson's worst finish in the first five Chase races this season is ninth. Meanwhile, Busch has imploded, falling out of contention. The others have also struggled to keep up as the pressure has intensified.

Complacency won't be an issue for Johnson. Like Jordan -- a basketball star famous for turning any perceived slight into competitive fuel -- Johnson has figured out how to manufacture motivation. Before he starts any race, he allows his mind to conjure up mistakes he's made at that track in the past.

That will be a challenge today. He'll have to go all the way back to his first start at Martinsville to find a performance worthy of regret. Johnson's won here four times in 13 starts and has an average finish of sixth.

Perhaps that's why Jeff Burton, Johnson's closest pursuer in the Chase, smiled Friday when asked what his strategy would be today.

"Just try to keep up," he said.

He was joking. Sort of.

But when you're following Mr. Clutch in October, that's really the best you can do.

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