The Boys Of Fall

Jimmie Johnson will try for an unprecedented sixth consecutive NASCAR title in 2011. Although Johnson goes into the season as the odds on favorite for the Chase title, he'll have no shortage of competent challengers seeking to send him from the head table at the banquet to a seat in the crowd.

The combination of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus is unquestionably the best driver/crew chief combination in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship era. Since 2004, the pair has claimed 5 championships and finished second in the points once. In addition, they've teamed up for 47 victories in the Chase era. Remarkably, they've won 19 out of 70 Chase races-- a 27 percent winning percentage. Suffice to say, the #48 Lowes team is at its best when the weather turns cooler and fall colors illuminate the horizon.

So, the obvious question going into 2011 is this: Can Johnson be beat? The short answer is yes. In 2010, Johnson found himself in an unfamiliar position heading to the season finale in Homestead, Florida. Johnson trailed Denny Hamlin in the points standings and put the pressure squarely on Hamlin's shoulders during media interviews leading up to the race. Hamlin struggled under the glare of the spotlight and made an uncharacteristic error early in the race by drifting into Greg Biffle. Johnson posted a solid runner-up finish to once again claim the title. In 2011, Hamlin is the most likely choice to finally unseat Johnson. Besides Hamlin, there are several drivers who will also enter the pre-season conversation. Carl Edwards finished 2010 with back-to-back victories. Kevin Harvick scored the most total points in 2010. And Jeff Gordon.... where does Jeff Gordon wind up in the pre-season previews? After 10 years of trying for a fifth title, will 2011 finally be his year?

Gordon and new crew chief Alan Gustafson start 2011 with the odds against them. Just twice in the last 30 years has a new driver/crew chief tandem won the title in their first year together. Dale Earnhardt and Andy Petree accomplished the task in 1993, while Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond claimed the 1982 championship in their first year. Nevertheless, Gordon enters the 2011 season with a number of advantages in his corner. For starters, the Chase format allows a 26-race prelude. Gordon and Gustafson have 7 months to build chemistry for a title run. They don't need to claim maximum points early in the season (though it would be nice!). Rather, they just need to be at their best for a 10-week stretch in the fall.

Gordon's Chase strategy in 2010 focused on consistent finishes. However, a few sub-par efforts (Dover, Texas) and a bad decision on the track (Martinsville) created a points deficit that became nearly impossible to overcome. The driver who will defeat Johnson for the title is the one who goes out during the Chase and wins races -- multiple races. Consecutively. The #48 team has shown an uncanny ability to rise to the occasion when the situation called for it. A slow Chase start in 2010? No problem- just score maximum points at Dover Speedway. Struggle with handling at Phoenix Raceway? Easy enough- just play the fuel mileage game to perfection.

The chemistry that Johnson and Knaus have developed heading into their 10th season together is not something that Gordon and Gustafson can attain overnight. That's just one of the reasons why a new combination has won just two titles in the last 30 years. For the last 5 years, Johnson and Knaus have truly been The Boys Of Fall. No driver has been better than Johnson when the Chase title has been on the line. In the last 5 years, no professional athlete has consistently been better than Johnson with a championship on the line.

The driver who dethrones Johnson will likely need multiple victories in the Chase. The driver will need to lead laps at nearly every Chase race. And the driver will need to push back against the mental edge of 5 consecutive championships. Could The Drive To End Hunger become The Drive To End The Dynasty? The answer won't come in the spring or the summer. Wait for the fall. Who knows what the autumn leaves will bring?

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