Reversal of Fortune


Wrong way to the Cup, JJ: Jimmie spins out at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 21 after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya. The No. 48 Chevrolet limped into the garage and got back out on the track 75 laps down, resulting in a 35th-place finish.

This weekend is the last one without a Sprint Cup race until the end of the season. The drivers who also participate in Nationwide Series races are headed for this weekend’s race in Montreal.

For many of these drivers, it may be the last season they attempt to race in both series, given that Nationwide purses are being cut 20 percent next year and Sprint Cup drivers may be barred from championship eligibility. But then, if you’re Kyle Busch, wins count more than any series, since he’s trying to rack up 200 wins in combined Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series races.

No break this year for those guys, but next year, Sprint Cup drivers may become more Jimmie Johnsonian in their leisure hours. It’s probably just coincidence, but it is unusual that the guy who doesn’t try to race in both (or all) series is the consecutive four-time champ.

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Still, I hope that Jimmie Johnson will use the time off to address the meltdown in this season. Since his last win at Loudon on June 27, he’s finished 31st, 25th, 22d, 10th, 28th, 12th and 35th – craparoo for any driver, a shit blizzard for a 4-peat champ. It’s not that Johnson hasn’t been racing well – he has led 90 or more laps three times in past seven races – but the stuff of bad luck — pit miscues, part failures, wrecks — are becoming alarmingly more the norm.

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So alarming, you can’t help feel the whoosh of a downward spiral. It’s a bit reminiscent, albeit pre-Chase, of Kyle Busch in 2008, who won eight races (only Carl Edwards had more races with 9) but bonked right at the outset of the Chase and ended up 12th in points.

A similar sort of meltdown occurred during the Miss Universe pageant last night. Two contestants, Miss Philippines and Miss Mexico were neck and neck (or bustline and bustline?) in scoring going into the final round.

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William Baldwin asked Venus Raj, Miss Philippines, the final round question: “What is one big mistake you made in your life, and what did you do to correct it?”

Raj ahemmed for a moment and then, stroking her hair, replied, “You know sir, in my 22 years of existence, there is nothing major, major, major, I mean, problem, that I have done in my life.”

Rigggggggggggt. That wrong-headed response is what prompted the judges to give the final nod and crown of Miss Universe to Jimena Navarette of Mexico.

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Miss Phillipines was a knockout, but she didn’t have the brains to conquer the Universe.

In that arena of competition, beauty and brains disconnect at great peril. Let’s recall the remarks by Miss South Carolina Lauren Caitlin Upton in the Miss Teen USA 2007 pageant. She was asked, “Why can’t one fifth of Americans locate America on the map?” The halcyon ur-blonde replied,

I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh, people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as, uh, South Africa and, uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future, for our children.

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Thank you, Miss South Carolina, and here’s to Miss Teen America 2007 Hilary Cruz of Colorodo.

Some other notable meltdowns on the home stretch:

– In 1992, the Houston Oilers were carrying a 33-point lead into the fourth quarter of their AFC wild card game and ended up losing to 38-35 to the Buffalo Bills.

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– In 2007, New York Mets pitcher and two-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine pitched a nightmarish first inning against the Florida Marlins, giving up seven runs and knocking the Mets out of playoff contention.

– Zinedine Zidane headbutted a competitor during the 2006 World Cup final which sidelined France’s best scorer and led to Italy’s 5-3 shootout win. (The Italian was rumored to have said something about Zidane’s mother.)

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– Earlier this month, Tiger Woods blew it bigtime at the $8.5 million WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, ending up with a 7-over-77, the highest four-round score of his pro career. I guess thinking about all that wide-open strange he’ll be getting without worrying about what his wife knows made his putter go wild.

Big league flubbing rouses shameful memories in me of watching my own heroes bite it bigtime. The year was 1969 and my Chicago Cubs were enjoying on Sept. 2 a 84-52 record with a solid, 5-game lead over the second-place New York Mets. The Cubs hadn’t made the playoffs since 1945 and won their last World Series in 1908; the whole city (well, north of Cominsky Park and the White Sox) was a-twirl with visions of glory.

And then my Cubbies went into a September tailspin, losing 17 of their last 25 games and the league title going to the Mets, who went on to win the World Series. I was 12 at the time at the die-hardest Cubs fan, watching games from our house in the northern suburb of Evanston, eyes glued the set, fingers, toes, heart crossed as I watched my boys who seemed so certain to win the division title choke and choke big, day after day, week after week, spiraling down the gutter of my dream.

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My heart was broken forever in 1969; never again have I been able to muster much faith in my home team. I’m always surprised when my favorite team is able to do much of anything, like when the Bears won the Super Bowl in ’85 or the Florida State Seminoles won the national title in ’91.

I didn’t have any faith that Jimmie Johnson could win a third consecutive championship, much less a fourth; and now my faith is at an all time low in JJ, confirmed with events of the past eight race. It may be still August, but it feels like the Fall, or that falling season in which grand aspirations overwhelm the brain and start shorting out natural abilities. Is that it? Is Jimmie thinking too hard? Is Chad Knaus getting out-pitted by his own furious calculations?

Johnson seems sure to make the Chase – even in 9th place now he can’t fall out of the points before the start of the Chase — but it looks like he’ll finish the Race to the Chase at about the bottom of the twelve. No matter, you’d say: his five wins gives him bonus points position which will re-set him toward the front of the pack. But right now all he has is reverse momentum, hitting a backward stride which seems to be headed Kyle Busch’s 2008 way.

Midway through the season I posted a fantasia of how Jimmie got his groove back, but fantasy ain’t reality, and what counts on the track is what really happens—a fickle, fateful thing. Early in the season Kevin Harvick said that JJ had the golden horsehoe up his ass; now it seems that Harvick has wrested that happy half-oval free (no comments here on how he achieved that) and has affixed it to his rear bumper of his #29 Pennzoil RCR Chevrolet, where all the also rans can watch it and weep.

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Well—Atlanta and then Richmond and the Chase will be on. Many seasoned motorsports writers who have been around for a while point out that Johnson was never leading in the points when the Chase started, that his racing always became stellar when it counted most.

Johnson has been quoted: “What I keep telling myself is that those 10 races in the Chase, it is its own world.” And that’s true. No matter how badly things go for the next two races, he will start the Chase no worse than 20 points back.  “The people act and react differently under pressure,” he said, “including us, and for the last four years we have done a great job in that environment.”

As a JJ fan, I’m sure hoping for that. But it’s a little like watching a hurricane float toward Florida with the forecasters calmly assuring us that it will turn at the last moment. Skies are getting awfully cloudy and the wind’s picking up. Do I keep faith in Jimmie’s talent and once-golden good luck, or should I start boarding up the house?

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