Johnson: 'We can control our own destiny'
November 17, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- For the eighth time in the last 10 years, Jimmie Johnson has arrived in South Florida with a shot to leave with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Should he take advantage of the 28-point cushion he has on the field entering Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET, ESPN), it would be Johnson’s sixth championship. He "only" needs to finish 23rd or better to hoist the hardware.
Only one time in the 10-year history of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup has the points leader entering the final race not emerged champion. In 2010, Denny Hamlin held a 15-point advantage over Johnson at the green flag, but that didn’t prove enough as Johnson finished runner-up in the race and made history as the first driver to win five consecutive Cup championships.
In the seven previous races where a title was on the line for him Johnson has an average finish of 10.9. But take out a 36th-place finish in 2012 when he trailed eventual champion Brad Keselowski entering the race and Johnson's average finish is 6.7.
Some years he's had to race hard to wrangle a title, others he could be more conservative and steady -- just good enough to hold on and prevail.
No other driver has been in this position as often as Johnson and he and his team are well aware different scenarios mean different expectations and strategies.
"Over the years nothing has been consistent and the same, and I think that is what I'm carrying in here," Johnson said. "Even though we have a nice points lead, you can't count on anything going like it did the last year. Other years you have to come in and stay in the present and run the 400 miles. It's not a lay‑up, you can't just think things are going to go as they always have.
"I've lost it from making mistakes, I've lost one blowing a tire down here, we've had a carburetor failure down here, and then we've had a lot of good ones. We've come from behind, we've been able to manage, so anything can happen is really the lesson."
But, Johnson conceded, "Definitely in the position I want to be in. Defending is the place of control of the points lead. We can control our own destiny. It does come with a price. There's a lot of pressure on myself and the team to get things done."
Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus admitted this week that sometimes having a large points lead creates more headaches with the increased expectations.
"I wouldn't say there's more pressure, but you'll look like a bigger fool if you lose it," Knaus said. "I think that we want to ‑‑ we just want to go down there and perform.
"There's a lot of pressure, no doubt about it, but that's what we love. I live for these last 10 weeks, and once we get through these next 10 weeks I can't wait to get through the next 26 so I can get to these 10 weeks next year. This is what we live for. This is what we enjoy. We like the pressure."
Johnson's closest challengers, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick, meanwhile say the pressure is completely off of them. Kenseth, a seven-time race winner this season, trails Johnson by 28 points. Harvick is 34 back.
"I think for us, we've had so many strange things happen throughout my career at the last minute, you at least have to play everything out," Harvick said. "Just the type of team we are, we race up until the last lap. You just never know what's going to happen.
"Realistically the only things we can control are what we do. It's definitely a really, really long shot. But we'll control the things that are in our control and see how it all falls."
It is a long shot, but not impossible. Twice in 2013, Kenseth has made up more than 28 points in a race on Johnson. In August at Bristol, Kenseth won and earned the maximum 48 points while Johnson was caught up in a multi-car wreck and finished 36th. Two weeks later at Richmond, Kenseth finished sixth to Johnson's 40th-place effort, after blowing a right front tire.
There was also a runner-up finish in August at Michigan that helped Harvick make up 37 points on Johnson.
Plus, Johnson's seventh-place starting position in the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet is the lowest of the three championship contenders. Kenseth won the pole and Harvick will start sixth.
Still, Johnson is in a favorable position as it's worth noting he has never lost the championship when he led the standings entering the Homestead race. As far as he's concerned his strategy is as straight forward and similar as his challengers.
"I think the safest place on the race track is up front, and if I look back to our Texas performance, we found a way to race smart, stay out of trouble and still get the race won," Johnson said. "I would love to win the race and win the championship, but we'll just have to see how things develop in the race and where we are relative to the 20 (Kenseth).
"The big prize at the end of the day is what we're focused on, it's not so much that individual win, but we need to go down there and be prepared and treat Friday and Saturday like we need to win the race so we can make the car as comfortable and as fast as possible to give us all our options on Sunday.
"I’m excited to have this opportunity. Again, we're in the position that we want to be in, that I'm sure any driver would want to be in."