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Johnson's experience provides calm in storm

October 24, 2012, Joe Menzer,

No. 48 driver looks to 'get into Keselowski's head' down the Chase stretch

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson was talking with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame when a group of elementary-school children nearby began breaking out their miniature hammers.

"I want to believe that we'll creep into [Keselowski's] head. I feel like I've always responded well to pressure, but I didn't know that about myself until I was in a hot fire ..."


They pounded to their hearts' content, creating such a din of noise as they attempted to build model wooden cars that all Johnson could do was stop talking and start laughing. Besides, he admitted that it reminded him of last Sunday when his No. 48 team had to pound his Chevrolet back into shape after he got into the outside wall on Lap 137 of the 267-lap event.

Johnson even recalled that his car chief, Ron Malec, was swinging a bigger hammer and making more noise in the pits on Sunday.

"Ron was hitting it a heck of a lot harder than that," Johnson said. "I was like, 'Dude, stop hitting it so hard! You're going to break something else!'"

Johnson's rally from what appeared to be disaster -- seemingly a finish of 25th or worse -- to ninth is the kind of deal that could win him his sixth Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. But it left him with mixed feelings a few days after the fact.

*Video: Johnson talks Martinsville, Chase hopes

"I really feel that we dodged one," Johnson said. "But at the same time, there still is lingering disappointment on my behalf for putting us in that situation. ... We were chasing down the 56 [car of Martin Truex Jr.] to try to catch him and get by him, and I lose the car and hit the wall.

"So, I feel like we left some points on the table. It's really my responsibility to not crash the car -- and I did. But to have a wreck like that and get it fixed as fast as they did, and to come back and be as fast and as competitive as we were, there is a lot to be said for that. Still, I hope I don't get to [the final race of the season at] Homestead and need the three or four or five points that we lost there because I crashed the car."

Johnson enters this Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway in second place in the Chase standings, just seven points behind leader Brad Keselowski and 13 ahead of Denny Hamlin, in third place. But it's a place where Johnson has won six times -- the last coming in the spring of 2009. Hamlin has won at the .526-mile paper clip four times, including three in a row at one point following Johnson's last Martinsville victory.

That's all well and good, Johnson said. But then he was quick to add: "You've still got to race the race. Stats only mean so much. But we're excited to go to a track where we've done so well. We know Hamlin is going to be tough, and the 24 [car of Jeff Gordon] is going to be tough, and the 29 [car of Kevin Harvick]. So, we're going to have our hands full."

The mission, however, is very clear.

"We've got to be up front," Johnson said. "To a certain degree, I can just focus on the 11 [car of Hamlin] and the 2 [car of Keselowski] at this point -- maybe the 15 [car of Clint Bowyer, who is fourth in the Chase standings]. So, you can work it down from 42 others to just three or four that you really need to outrun. But with Denny's performance at Martinsville, to outrun him you're probably going to have to win the race."

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Johnson admitted he is calmer with four races to go in this Chase than he's ever been while running down a title, which he won five consecutive seasons beginning in 2006 before Tony Stewart captured it last season. He also admitted he's hoping Keselowski, who has never been in this situation with four races to go in a Chase, isn't feeling quite as comfortable.

"If you're in the position of contending for a championship you've never won, at some point you're wondering what to do. You're like, 'What's the road map look like?'" Johnson said. "For me, those were questions I asked myself. But once I had the '06 championship under my belt, I had more confidence in the road I was following in '07 and '08 and so on, because I was reinforcing what I already knew.

"I think I went from worrying about everything to worrying about almost everything to, this point, however many years later, where I'm worrying about less than I ever did before. My focus is so much more narrow, and I feel like I've got a better vision of what it takes. ... I guess it lets you sleep at night. Experience helps you be more calm."

Experience, he pointed out, that Keselowski doesn't yet own.

"I want to believe that we'll creep into his head. I want to believe that the things I went through fighting for my first [championship] will enter his mind, too," Johnson said. "But we're all wired differently and we all respond to pressure differently. I feel like I've always responded well to pressure, but I didn't know that about myself until I was in a hot fire and figured out what was going on. We'll see how everybody responds."