Fear factor

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

AVONDALE, Ariz. – If your name isn't Jimmie Johnson, this one had an eerily familiar feel to it.

There Johnson was, the strongest car for much of the night, just like last year. But then it went away from him, and he probably shouldn't have won; probably should have taken a top five and gone home to Charlotte, N.C.

But this is Jimmie Johnson we're talking about. And while he may seem mild mannered when he's in front of a television camera, he's got a fire inside that begs to win.

With eight laps to go in Saturday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus came on the radio and told Johnson to pit. They needed fuel. Johnson told him no, Knaus relented, Johnson wound up winning and had enough fuel left to do a burnout.

"We're going to win this bitch," Johnson screamed into his radio as he closed in on the checkered flag.

That's the fire, and that's what's scary if you're the rest of the field.

There are races when Johnson should win. This wasn't one of them.

After leading a bunch of laps early, he fell out of the top 10 while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin battled it out up front. They – not Johnson – were the men to beat. And if not them, then Denny Hamlin or Martin Truex or maybe even Carl Edwards. But not Johnson.

But as the gas lamps started to come on, one by one they all pitted, and by default Johnson found himself in the lead with nine laps to go. A lap later, Knaus called him into the pits. Johnson stayed out.

This is the mark of a champion, someone who can grind their way to the top even though they're not on their best game; someone who risks it all to win. It doesn't always work out the way you want it to, but for certain people it does, and that's not by coincidence.

Johnson is one of those people, and when he got out of his car, he issued a warning to the competition: "We're back."

If this were "Friday the 13th," we'd be hearing the "chichichichi, kakakaka" right about now – that familiar sound that let's you know you're entering a danger zone.

For the rest of the Sprint Cup garage, the danger zone is Johnson being in a zone. In just three weeks, he's made up more than 100 points on the field, vaulting from 13th to fourth in the standings.

Yes, it's still early and yes, it's only one win. But when Johnson and Knaus get rolling, it takes a while for them to slow down. Two years ago, he finished the season with a win, four seconds and a ninth in the last six races to rally to win his first championship. Of his 10 wins last year, only one was isolated. The rest came in bunches, including four in a row as he ran away with his second straight title.

In the early part of this season, it was easy to forget that he's the two-time defending champion. He looked awful in Las Vegas and wasn't much better at Atlanta.

Saturday's win served as a reminder. It reminded us that Johnson won here the last time the tour was in Phoenix. It reminded us just how smart he and Knaus are. And it reminded us that when there's a win up for grabs, there really is only one driver to bet on.

Jimmie Johnson's fist pump may not be as emphatic as Tiger Woods', but that doesn't mean he can't strike fear in the hearts of his opponents. Saturday night, he did it with an empty fuel tank.

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