Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Precedent Now Is Set; Johnson's 2004 Cup Lead Vanished in First Chase

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Precedent Now Is Set; Johnson's 2004 Cup Lead Vanished in First Chase

Article excerpt

Byline: ADAM VAN BRIMMER

The plan seemed solid.

No one could fault Jimmie Johnson and his race team for how they prepared for the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup last year.

They didn't have a precedent, after all. NASCAR had never before determined its points champion with a 10-race playoff. There wasn't a proven strategy for Johnson and the others atop the standings to follow in readying for the Chase.

So when Johnson's team built a 600-point cushion on the 10th-place driver with a Pennsylvania 500 victory Aug. 1, 2004 -- seven races before the start of the Chase -- it adopted a tactic popular in other sports when a team clinches a playoff spot early: It backed off.

More specifically, the team experimented with new car and engine setups. It raced to win but also focused on avoiding trouble to save its car and its driver for the final 10 races.

"Things backfired on us," Johnson said.

In the three races following the Pocono victory -- Johnson's fourth of the season -- his tweaked engines failed. He finished 36th in the final race before the Chase, then opened the playoff with two finishes of 32nd or worse in the first four races.

Johnson's team rallied, winning four of the final six races and finishing in the top 10 of the other two. But it finished second in the Chase, eight points behind champion Kurt Busch.

"One thing about this sport is you can't time your low spots or your high spots," Johnson said. "You just hope that cycle comes around right and it works right at the end of the year."

That hard lesson is a valuable one for Johnson and the other three drivers who are all but locked into the Chase with four races remaining before the playoff begins. Points leader Tony Stewart, Johnson, Greg Biffle and Rusty Wallace are all more than 250 points in front of the 10th-place driver and the Chase cutoff entering Sunday's GFS Marketplace 400 in Brooklyn, Mich. …

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