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With title in sight, Johnson makes small changes

November 14, 2013, Kenny Bruce,

Five-Time more cautious off the track heading into Homestead

RELATED: Challengers to Johnson don't play mind games

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson heads into this weekend's race with a healthy lead in the points standings, but even a guy that's won five titles tends to be a little more careful when another championship is on the line.

Johnson, who runs, bikes, swims and presumably rescues kittens from tall trees when he's not winning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races these days, hasn't put his workout routine on the shelf as he goes in search of a sixth Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title. But he has adjusted, he said.

"I was going to ride Tuesday and decided not to," the Hendrick Motorsports driver admitted Thursday during the Contenders' News Conference at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "I went to a CompuTrainer class which is where you ride on a dyno that's bolted to the floor so I couldn't fall down and get hurt. I wanted to go mountain biking but decided against it."

A bicycle crash took out veteran Bobby Labonte earlier this year, forcing the veteran to the sidelines for a handful of races with broken ribs, so perhaps Johnson's doing the smart thing.

It might appear that his getting injured is about the only chance Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick, his two chief rivals, have in this year's Chase. With a 28-point lead on Kenseth (Joe Gibbs Racing) and 34 on Harvick (Richard Childress Racing), Johnson needs only to finish 23rd or better to wrap up a sixth championship.

Strange things have happened before -- two of the past three years have seen the points leader lose the championship in the season's final race. But Johnson, 38, is clearly favored this time around.

It's not an uncommon position for the native of El Cajon, Calif., who has more Chase victories (24) and more championships than any active driver. But success isn't guaranteed, and Johnson's had two seasons to chew on what it's been like to see someone else wear the crown.

"Last year was a good lesson for me," he said, "and I think I'm carrying some of that experience now in dealing with this. We felt like things were going our way after Texas, we had the points lead, we go to Phoenix and the wheels fall off, literally, when we blow a right front. Then we had trouble here."

That combination of problems led to a third-place points finish -- and a championship for Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski.

It wasn't the one that stuck in Johnson's craw, however. Sometimes a team's best simply isn't good enough.

"You've got to admit it when you have a good year and you just come up short," he said. "You can't just thrash yourself over that.

"Last year wasn't that difficult for me even though we lost in a way that really wasn't all that much fun."

Tougher to swallow, he said, was the 2011 outcome when a 14th-place finish in Phoenix mathematically eliminated Johnson and the No. 48 team from title contention. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards waged a battle that, for the first time ever, saw two drivers finish the season tied in points. Stewart emerged with the championship based on having more wins during the season.

In the meantime, Johnson's role was suddenly that of a bit player.

"We weren't even a factor," he said. "I wasn't a part of the (contenders) press conference. I can remember seeing on Twitter and hearing about it, Carl and Tony were at the presser and we weren't there. That stung more than losing last year.

"You just want a shot at the championship. Of course you want the championship, but they're so hard to get you just want a chance at one. Being here for this day is a huge goal in itself."

Not the ultimate goal, of course, but one step closer.

"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," he said.

"We'll deal and manage that as the weekend goes on."



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