Prior to the start of the Chase for the Championship, Kurt Busch believed he had successfully broken the concentration of defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. However, most observers believe that Kurt had just psyched himself out, allowing the stoic Johnson to do what he always does: focus on more championships.
On Sunday, it was the other Busch, Kyle that may have done what his peers have been trying to do for five years and that’s pierce the focus of Team 48 during the most important stretch of the season.
Neither Johnson nor Busch have had a particularly positive start to the playoffs, finishing 18th and 11th on Sunday and are now sitting -29 and -26 points out of first place respectively.
For Johnson, tenth is the lowest he’s ever found himself in the standings during his eight playoff appearances. For Busch, it’s yet another bad start for the Chase favorite who’s never had a strong playoff run in his five showings.
The key moment for both in last week’s Loudon race came with just 20 laps remaining, when Busch and Johnson tangled. After some traded paint, Johnson nearly lost control and slid several positions backward. Busch could be heard screaming over the radio that Johnson needed to “get his freaking head in the game.”
“He was just racing really hard, which was just what he’s supposed to do,” Johnson said afterward. “Typically, the one lane off the bottom is the lane you give someone when they’re on the inside of you. And he didn’t want to give that lane up. And we just made some contact. It wasn’t like he was trying to wreck me or anything, he was just being kind of stubborn and ‘end of a race’ mentality.”
While making retaliatory contact is nothing new for the fiery Busch, getting involved in payback scenarios is uncommon for Johnson who also had several uncharacteristic barbs with Chad Knaus in the middle stages of Sunday’s race.
“Dude, you’re cheerleading is terrible,” Johnson said over his team’s radio. “I’m going to drive my ass off. Don’t sweat it, just watch. It’s actually annoying instead of helping, so just let me go out and do my thing.”
This is far from normal behavior for Johnson, who is usually focused on execution over the final 10. While the new Jimmie Johnson, fueled by sarcastic tweets and “Mini-Chad” is far more interesting than his previous incarnations, this version just isn’t getting the job done.
His struggles have been well-documented throughout 2011. While he finished the regular season on top of the championship standings, Johnson won only one race this season, at the ultra-random Talladega Superspeedway. He’s gone winless ever since and has been in the running for a win just few other times this season.
Johnson is clearly frazzled.
At 29 points out of first place, it’s now or never if Johnson is going to make his annual run at the Sprint Cup trophy. An average finish of 15th, with no wins and a budding feud with the Busch brothers just won’t win him a sixth consecutive championship.