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Points leader Johnson on patented late-season tear

It seems like NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup championship was custom-made for Jimmie Johnson.

The only driver besides Matt Kenseth to qualify for the 10-race playoff each year since its inception in 2004, the reigning series champion has become the master of the big finish.

Asked what ignites his killer instinct about halfway through the Chase each year, Johnson grinned and shrugged.

'That is the most-asked question and I don't have an answer for you, I'm sorry,' he said.

'I think tracks have something to do with it. There are good tracks that we see in the spring and fall, and that has a lot to do with it. ... We just show up and we do the same job every week that we always do, but there are certain tracks that we are better at.'

It seems NASCAR visits all of them in the final weeks of the Chase.

The first year of the Chase, he gave everyone a sample of what was to come.

Johnson got off to a slow start and found himself a daunting 247 points behind leader Kurt Busch after four races. He and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team then found life and put on a dramatic charge, winning four of the last six races to finish eight points short of Busch in the closest championship ever in NASCAR's top stock car series.

In 2005, there were no dramatics as Tony Stewart dominated on the way to his second career title. But Johnson did win twice in the Chase and had five other top-10 finishes. He started the last race second to Stewart, just 52 points behind, but crashed and finished 40th at Homestead-Miami Speedway, winding up fifth, 127 points back in the championship.

Last year was more of the same.

Johnson again got off to a slow start and found himself 156 points behind Jeff Burton after the first four Chase events. He was the class of the field the rest of the way, with one win, four second-place finishes and a sixth, beating Kenseth for the title by 56 points.

That brings us to this year, when Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon has had one of the best campaigns of his illustrious career.

Under the old format, with all the races counting toward the championship, Gordon would be leading Johnson by more than 400 points with two races remaining. But, with everything starting over for the 12 drivers in the Chase - seeded for the first time this year by 'regular season' wins - Johnson actually had a 20-point lead over his friend and mentor going into the Chase opener at New Hampshire.

Four-time champion Gordon didn't blink. In the first eight 2007 playoff races, he had seven finishes of seventh or better and a worst of 11th. And, heading into this Sunday's race at Phoenix, Gordon trails Johnson by just 30 points.

That's because Johnson turned on the jets again after falling 68 points behind Gordon with a 14th-place finish at Charlotte in the fifth race of the Chase. Since then, he has won three straight times and stolen the momentum from Gordon, who had won the two previous races.

'I think that we've been on quite a roll, and going to Victory Lane does something for the crew and the shop that you don't get any other way,' Johnson said. 'When you go to Victory Lane, there's just a buzz that goes through all of Hendrick Motorsports and, really, on the 48 team.

'So we have momentum going our direction right now, but it's only 30 points. And, if you look at the last two weeks, I've been able to make up roughly 60 points. And Jeff hasn't had bad races the last two events. He's had strong he finishes. So I can finish 10th (at Phoenix) and he can win and I'm back in second.'

Gordon, listed along with team owner Rick Hendrick as co-owner of Johnson's car, was one of the first people to show up in Victory Lane last Sunday at Texas to congratulate Johnson.

'Thirty (points) isn't much,' Gordon said after the race. 'The biggest thing right now is that we're just getting beat and those guys are winning races. We've got to go put some pressure back on them and outperform them.'

Considering Johnson's history in the Chase, that won't be easy.