Challengers to Johnson don't play mind games
November 14, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Dressed casually in ball caps and constantly cracking jokes to one another on stage during Thursday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Contenders News Conference, it might have appeared as though Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick didn't have a care in the world.
Or a shot to catch championship points leader Jimmie Johnson.
But both Kenseth and Harvick insisted and reminded at every opportunity that anything can happen in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And just having a mathematical shot at stopping Johnson’s quest for a sixth title is better than no shot at all.
“It’s kinda like that quote from (the movie) 'Dumb and Dumber': ‘So you’re saying there’s a chance,' " joked Harvick, who enters the finale ranked third, 34 points behind Johnson.
“Whether as a young kid coming up you just want a chance, or coming into the championship you just want a chance. We've seen a lot of things happen in this sport. I know as a team we can control the things that we can control. That's what we're focused on for the weekend. Circumstances can control everything else.
“What we can control is how fast that car runs, the decisions we make on the race track. That's what we're going to focus on for now. You hope it all falls your way, but there's going to have to be a lot of things happen.’’
Asked why the pair hadn’t made much effort at giving Johnson the kind of mind-whammy that have characterized more provocative versions of this press conference in past seasons, Kenseth simply smiled and said “Maybe because he’s ahead by 28 points.’’
Then after a brief pause, he smiled and said, “If he was building his own engine, I’d be messing with him right now.’’
Johnson needs only to finish 23rd or better in his No. 48 Chevrolet Sunday to clinch a sixth championship. While he has never won at the South Florida 1.5-mile oval, his average finish here is 15.3. He finished 36th last year and 32nd in 2011.
But, Kenseth offered as the room erupted in laughter, “I think Jimmie could run 28th through the grass or with three wheels.’’
So what do Kenseth and Harvick need to do short of locking Johnson in a Porta-Potty, as Harvick’s team had joked following its win at Phoenix last week?
“We’re going to go with the idea of trying to win the race, finish as high as we can and be there in case something does happen,’’ said the 2003 Cup champ Kenseth, who trails Johnson by 28 points despite a series-best seven victories.
“I haven't had a mathematical chance to win a championship going into the last race in seven years. You don’t get many chances to win these things, so when you get a chance you want to take advantage of it. I still have more hope than you probably think I would, actually.
“Anything can happen. But we still have to do our jobs and that’s what I have to focus on. Anything can happen. There’s a lot of things in these cars that are mechanical. You never know when you’re going to have a flat tire or something break. You don’t wish that on anybody, but we’ve had our share of races where things like that have happened. ...
“Obviously, we need to do the things we can to be in position in case they do have some sort of problem. Kevin’s pretty close to us so we need to be in front of him to finish in second and ahead of him in case the 48 does have a problem, so he doesn’t sneak in there and win it.’’
Unlike more recent Contenders News Conferences, this one was relatively friendly and tame, largely because the three drivers are long established with at least one NASCAR title under their belt.
They are realistic about the circumstances and more than that, reverent of one another’s resumé.
“I still think with this group of guys there’s that mutual respect,’’ Harvick said. “You’re not going to go out and psych out Jimmie Johnson or Matt. There’s not any reason to waste your time.
“The last time I did this (Contenders News Conference) with the three of them (himself, Johnson and Denny Hamlin in 2010), we left that press conference and I was like, ‘Wow. That was interesting to say the least.’
“Jimmie had fully ingrained himself into Denny’s head when we left Thursday and it proceeded to snowball into Sunday,’’ Harvick said recalling Hamlin losing the title to Johnson -- the first time a points leader entering the finale did not win the championship.
“You talk about the experience level and the mental toughness ... that comes from time. You can’t just instantly understand that. You can’t just step into it and understand until you’ve been involved.
“It’s not worth wasting your time on the psychological side of it because everybody’s been through that with this group.’’
For his part, Johnson is aware the odds are in his favor, barring an uncharacteristic major meltdown -- a turn of events even his closest contenders aren’t exactly wishing upon him.
“Very few people are wired to think badly about others, or to wish things badly to happen to others, and that's not them,’’ Johnson acknowledged. “They're focused on being in a position to where if we do have a problem or do make a mistake, that they can capitalize on it. So that doesn't surprise me a bit.’’
Then the five-time champ added with a smile, “But I am afraid to go into a Porta-Potty prior to the race. I'm just going to have to hold it.’’