Fair factor

Jay Hart

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – So it's over, Jeff Gordon declared, and not just because he trails Jimmie Johnson by 86 points going into Sunday's season finale. But because the only way he can win the title is if Johnson runs into some sort of trouble. And Gordon's too proud to win like that.

"Even if we win it, it's because they had problems," Gordon said, "and while we'll accept it, we don't want to do it that way."

Why not? Isn't that the way it is in sports, where you work your way up through the line toward No. 1, then hope that something or someone – maybe even you – can knock off the top dog?

Just look at college football. This season, USC was the unquestioned No. 1, unbeatable some said, that is until Stanford beat them. Then no one could hang with LSU, at least not until Kentucky went toe-to-toe with them. Then it was Ohio State's turn. The Buckeyes were supposed to waltz through their Big Ten schedule. Only they didn't. Illinois cut in, cutting short Ohio State's stay atop the rankings.

In a lot of ways, the Chase for the Nextel Cup is exactly like college football – a weekly game of survivor where one wrong move can knock you from your perch. It doesn't matter how good or unbeatable you're supposed to be, if you don't bring it for even one week, you're done.

Of course, getting knocked off sooner than later is actually better, because it gives you time to recover, as LSU has done this season and as Johnson did last year when he used up two "losses" in the first four races of the Chase. With six races still to go last year, Johnson was able to rally to win his first Nextel Cup, just as LSU has managed to claw its way back into this year's national championship hunt with wins over Auburn and Alabama.

Through nine races in this year's Chase, both Johnson and Gordon have been flawless. It's just that Johnson has been a little more flawless – carrying a 4.7 average finish in the Chase compared to Gordon's 5.2.

But it's not a nine-race playoff. It's 10, and what's the difference between Johnson running into trouble in Race No. 1 of the Chase at New Hampshire vs. this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway? They count the same, don't they?

That's the way of sports – you play until the whistle blows.

If golf tournaments lasted 71 holes, Phil Mickelson would be a U.S. Open champion and Jean Van de Velde would be a British Open winner. If baseball games ended with two outs in the ninth, Bill Buckner's life would be a whole lot easier.

But they played until the whistle, and so Geoff Ogilvy hoisted that U.S. Open trophy, Paul Lawrie's name is engraved on the Claret Jug and the entire city of Boston had Buckner to blame for not ending the Curse of the Bambino back in 1986.

No, if anyone should be worried about winning a championship "that" way, it should be Johnson. After all, he finished fifth during the regular season, yet went into the postseason No. 1.

There's something fundamentally wrong about that, but that's for another discussion.

This one's about legitimacy, and there would be nothing illegitimate about Gordon taking the title if Johnson were to find trouble on Sunday.

"Somebody's got to lose Sunday night," team owner Rick Hendrick said, "but with the kind of year both of these guys have, it's a shame they can't split the trophy."

If only life were that fair.