Jimmie Johnson by Ida Mae Astute/ABC
By winning the last four NASCAR Nextel Cup races,
has placed his fortunes squarely in his own hands. All he needs to do Sunday is finish 18th or better at the season-ending race at Homestead, Florida (Nov. 18, 3:45 pm/ET, ABC), and he gets to drink in a Nextel Cup title for the second year in a row. If he finishes 19th and leads just one lap during the race, it also won't matter what
, second in the Cup standings, does.
Which is not to belittle what Gordon has already done. A top-10 finish at Homestead would be Gordon's 30th - out of 36 races - for the season, a mark of consistency unseen since Dale Jarrett scored 29 top 10s (out of 34 races) in 1999.
Gordon and Johnson's tug-of-war through the Chase for the Nextel Cup has been remarkable, the first time since the Chase began in 2004 that the main title contenders were teammates
buddies. "We're good friends and get along great as teammates, but we've always been trying to outperform one another on the racetrack," Gordon says.
Johnson concurs: "There's a lot more on the line, but we've been living this reality for quite a few years now. We've been fighting for wins really since my rookie season."
They may be fighting again on Sunday, though strategy will dictate that Johnson take things a bit easier. If an unexpected drop by Johnson does occur, Gordon - who dominated the series during the regular season - will take the trophy, with a smile. The four-time champion knows stranger things have happened. When asked to pick his most memorable race of this season, Gordon smiles coyly and says, "I might not have seen it yet."
- Reporting by Robert Edelstein