HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – The Nextel Cup title is Jimmie Johnson’s to lose. Unfortunately for Johnson, he knows how easy that is to do.

Three years in a row, he’s gotten off to a miserable start in the Chase for the championship. Had he simply started the postseason the way he ran the rest of the year, he’d be closing in on his third title right now.

Instead, he needed frantic rallies to climb back into contention – only to still fall short at the end.

In 2004, he was eight points shy of the title in the tightest finish in NASCAR history. A year ago he was second in the points at the start of the race, blew a tire, wrecked and dropped all the way to fifth in final standings.

So even though he heads into Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a comfortable 63-point cushion, the victory party has yet to be planned.

No one inside Johnson’s camp would dare jinx this, even though the outcome seems inevitable: He starts 15th, and needs only to finish 12th or better to lock up the title.

“Johnsons do everything the hard way,” Gary Johnson, the proud yet stressed-out father said Saturday. “Nothing comes easy for us at all. Maybe this year will be the one that proves us wrong. But it’s too scary, too early to even think about. There’s a lot of racing left.”

Yes, there’s 400 miles left on what, so far, has been a dream season for Johnson.

He won the Daytona 500 while his crew chief served a suspension, then added a win at storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He conquered Talladega Superspeedway after a career full of torment, and led the points standings for 22 of the 26 weeks during the regular season.

Now he’s riding an incredibly hot streak into Homestead, with five finishes of second or better to make this championship his for the taking. Only he seemed a tad bit hesitant to embrace it. He knows Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are right behind him ready to pounce, but it wasn’t the challengers that concerned him.

Asked what worried him most about Sunday, Johnson didn’t blink.

“Myself,” he said flatly.

That’s because so much of Sunday is out of his control. Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team can have the No. 48 Chevrolet so dialed in that no one comes near his rear bumper all day.

But that’s only half the battle.

A lug nut might be just a little bit loose after a pit stop, drawing an ill-timed penalty. Spilled oil on the track could cause a spin. Debris could cut his tire. Bumping and banging between others could collect him.

And no part is immune from breaking, including the cheapest pieces in the engine that, when broken, could blow his motor and explode this title run up in a plume of white smoke.

“It’s 267 laps, 400 miles, a lot of things can happen,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “The thing we’ve got to do is just make certain that we’ve got a car that’ll stay underneath him for that period of time. And if something happens, something happens. If something happens and we don’t win, it’s not because we crumbled or that anything like that happened.

“It’ll be because of a parts failure or an accident or something like that.”

It will most certainly take some sort of freakish mishap to break Johnson’s heart and deny him this title.

No driver in the past three decades has blown more than a 30-point lead in the finale, and the lead has changed hands only twice on the final day of the season.

The last time was 1992, when Alan Kulwicki rallied from 30 points out to grab the championship from Bill Elliott.

But not even history and a black-and-white stat book could loosen up Johnson.

After posting the sixth-fastest lap in “Happy Hour” Saturday, his game face was on. One more team meeting, then he headed off for a quiet dinner with wife, Chandra, in downtown Miami.

“Practice was pretty good. I think the car is decent,” he said. “We worked on a few things and we are pretty happy with it. We’re all feeling pretty good and we’re doing what we need to do to get ready for tomorrow.”

Tony Stewart, who will hand over his throne as Nextel Cup champion on Sunday, has been in Johnson’s position two times before.

Although he claims he slept soundly the night before last season’s finale, he admits to an anxiousness that starts late Saturday evening and steadily builds until the race begins.

“Everybody handles it differently, but I watched the Busch race and I didn’t start getting nervous until the Busch race was over,” Stewart said. “They crowned the Truck champion last night and they re-crown the Busch champion (Saturday night) and after that, there’s one show to go and that’s ours. That’s when I started to get nervous.”

But car owner Rick Hendrick, who owns five championships, will do his best to calm Johnson should he show up Sunday morning even the slightest bit stressed. He won’t let Johnson allow the outcome to tarnish an otherwise tremendous season.

“I try to tell Jimmie this – you can’t let this championship thing eat you up,” Hendrick said. “He and Chad last year, we met in the offseason and spent a lot of time talking about this not being life-threatening.

“We want to be here for 10 years. I told them, ‘You guys are young. You’ll be the guys to beat every year, but in order to do that, we can’t let the pressure get to you.”‘

AP-ES-11-18-06 1803EST



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