Johnson overcomes woes, moves closer to title
November 10, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- On a day when problems were magnified to the nth degree, Jimmie Johnson overcame his. Matt Kenseth did not.
And now Johnson, the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, heads into the last race in this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup sporting a 28-point advantage on Kenseth, and 34 on third-place Kevin Harvick.
Johnson, who needs to finish 23rd or better to neutralize any charge from Kenseth or Harvick in the season-ending race, isn't ready to rest easy. Neither is crew chief Chad Knaus.
"Everybody is so eager to predict the champion, but you've got to play the game," Johnson said after his third-place finish in Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. "You've got to run the race and stuff happens. There are so many variables in our races -- I think more … than any pro sport out there. … So we don't take any of these weekends lightly. Even with a nice points lead I'm not going to take any week any differently.
"There's still a lot of pressure to get the job done, and it's no lay-up at all."
Johnson's Chase run nearly went out the window on the first lap of the race when contact with Joey Logano shoved his No. 48 Chevrolet out of the racing groove and dropped him from the pole to sixth.
Just past the halfway point of the race, contact from Carl Edwards once again sent him up the track, and by the time he recovered Johnson found himself running 26th.
Armed with one of the better handling and faster cars, Johnson was able to slowly make his way back inside the top 10, then inside the top five, during the second half of the race.
"Man, that was Lap 1 of 312 so I wasn't too concerned yet," Knaus said when asked about the first-lap incident. "There was a hell of a lot more that was going to happened between the start (and the end of the race).
"But it was definitely not the way we wanted to start the race -- we would have liked to have gotten out there but we didn't."
While Kenseth (Joe Gibbs Racing) was struggling with an ill-handling machine and trying to overcome a stunningly bad stop on pit road, Johnson was doing his best to take advantage of the opportunity.
"I knew I had a great race car, and that makes life a lot easier," Johnson said. "… All those incidents were close. The second one (with Edwards), I thought I was hitting the wall so I was glad that we got it gathered back in and got it going.
"Then the 20 (Kenseth) wasn't having the best day so after that issue we came to pit road and I expected him to be ahead of me and he was behind me. So at that point I knew I was in good shape relative to the championship battle.
"I knew I had a good car, knew I could get through traffic and I knew it was just about getting points on him at that point."
Kenseth finished 23rd, one lap down in a race that was won by Harvick. Johnson, Kenseth and Harvick have each won two events in this year's Chase.
Edwards, who held the lead before running out of gas with two laps remaining, found Johnson on pit road afterward and apologized for the earlier contact.
Knaus, watching as his crew and officials broke down his driver's car in post-race inspection, said issues such as Sunday's underscore how quickly a race can change. And that's why his team pushes hard each and every weekend.
"That's why we try to run at the same level of intensity from the time we go to Daytona for the 500 until we go to Homestead," he said. "We run 10 tenths every week; we try to win and put our best car forward and we don't ever lay back. If we're not running as well as we need to, we get to work."