LEMASTERS, JR.: The Chase Is Far From Over


CONCORD, N.C. — After Jimmie Johnson retook the point lead following the Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway, there was the thought that we were seeing the same movie, different season.

Not so fast.

Johnson isn’t moving out yet, as evidenced by the fact that he’s just 36 points ahead after four races on the 10-race Chase. There’s still more than enough room for movement. Question is, who is going to do the moving?

If you say Jimmie Johnson, you’ll probably be correct. He’ll move out, just like he has the past four seasons. Will anyone bother to catch him? That’s the $64,000 question.

A better query might be who CAN catch him? Nobody seems to have their stuff wired as tight as Jimbo and the boys do, and that’s the problem. They’re machines. They don’t feel pain. It’s what they do. It’s what he does.

Pardon me for the “Terminator” reference, but that’s Johnson. At least, that’s been him the past four years, and Schwarzenegger only made three movies.

Kevin Harvick might have a chance, if he can catch him. Denny Hamlin? Maybe, if his head is anywhere near on straight. Kyle Busch? Not after California’s high RPMs ventilated one of Mark Cronquist’s Toyota engines. He’s toast, in terms of titles.

One guy who can do all of that, and has done it twice already, is Tony Stewart.

“I knew we were going to have our hands full with Jimmie (Johnson), and thank goodness Clint Bowyer got up there and mixed it up and broke his momentum,” said Stewart after winning for the 39th time in Sprint Cup competition and the second time this season.

“I didn’t think we were good enough to do it. But man, this Office Depot/Old Spice team did an awesome job. They did an unbelievable job in the pits that got us an opportunity again. Both races we won, we’ve won because the pit crew gave us a chance, and that is all you can ask for.”

It was also a checkmark weekend for Smoke. He hadn’t won at Auto Club Speedway, and now he has. “Man, I’m just glad to finally win one at California. I can knock this off the list of tracks I haven’t won at now.”

Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb have formed the kind of bond that Johnson has with Chad Knaus, and it’s showing. Adjustments, figuring out how best to approach fixing cars that, most of the time, need more tuning than the New York Philharmonic, all seem to be falling into place.

The victory also catapulted Stewart from 10th in the points after Kansas to fifth with six races remaining. He’s 107 out, with a bullet.

Stewart’s been down this road a time or two, and he’s been able to string good finishes together to win a couple of titles (2002 and 2005). It might be happening again.

Jeff Gordon, Stewart and Johnson are have won 10 championsips among them. Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch are the only series champs in the Chase this year.

That’s a ton of experience on Stewart’s side. And Stewart used some of it on the final restart to hold off Johnson and Clint Bowyer.

“I think I was more worried than anything because Jimmie (Johnson) was coming,” Stewart said. “I just knew the restart was going to be critical and, if I could get through (turns) one and two and still have the lead off two, then I would have a shot at it. We got a good restart, picking the top there.

“Good thing Clint Bowyer was there to keep Jimmie honest and keep him busy, and that just let us do our own thing the last lap and run our lines.”

If anyone is going to beat Johnson this year and deny him a chance at five in a row, it will be Stewart. With Charlotte, Martinsville and Phoenix coming up, he’s got as good a chance as anyone.

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