Johnson's strategy: Just floor it
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Speed happens. That, perhaps, is the proper family newspaper-safe adaptation of the mantra Jimmie Johnson and his team have used since a wreck at Talladega six weeks ago left them in a seemingly hopeless hole in the Chase for t...
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Speed happens.
That, perhaps, is the proper family newspaper-safe adaptation of the mantra Jimmie Johnson and his team have used since a wreck at Talladega six weeks ago left them in a seemingly hopeless hole in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Johnson came to Charlotte in October eighth in the Chase and 156 points behind leader Jeff Burton. Today, as teams begin to assemble for NASCAR's championship weekend, he stands 63 points clear of his nearest rival and on the competitive high ground entering Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I never felt we were out of it," Johnson said of his chances to win his first Nextel Cup title after finishing second twice and fifth twice in his four seasons in the series. "But I never expected everyone to have as much difficulty and let a lot of us back in it. We never conceded. We just said, 'Let's go all out, we have nothing to lose. Let's just try to finish up by winning races.'"
Actually, Johnson did that only at Martinsville. But he finished second in the other four most recent races, and that has been enough to put him in charge.
Johnson will win the championship if he finishes 12th or better Sunday, even if second-place Matt Kenseth wins the Ford 400 and leads the most laps to score maximum points. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, each 90 points back, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is 115 behind, also could win the championship -- at least in theory.
For anyone else to have a realistic title shot, the kind of stuff that started happening to everybody else beginning at Lowe's Motor Speedway would have to befall the No. 48 Chevrolet on Sunday -- and in a big way.
Johnson was second behind Earnhardt Jr. with less than a lap to go at Talladega, but Brian Vickers got into him on the backstretch and that wound up taking out the front two, allowing Vickers to win.
In a way, though, that moment was the point of liberation for Johnson's team, crew chief Chad Knaus said.
"We have come into (the Chase) in the past thinking we just had to push, push, push and make everything happen at all cost," Knaus said. "That hasn't been successful for us. This time the team entered the Chase with a lot more casual mindset.
"We were working very hard. But, it is not live or die at this point, because if we do that, we aren't as good as we can be when we get in that type of mindset. So were are taking it casual, one step at a time and just rolling with it.
"We had issues, and yeah that takes some wind out of your sails for sure, but the thing is I've got a group of racers on my team. When you're a racer, yes you want to win the race, but the thing you want most is to go out on the race track and run competitive and run for the win.
"That's what we've been doing. Every race track that we've unloaded at this year in the final 10 races, we've had a top-five car, if not a car capable of winning the event."
Johnson was second to start the Chase, but finished 39th at New Hampshire thanks to early engine trouble and a crash. Four races into the 10-race playoff, his best finish had been 13th.
Since the Talladega wreck that turned a sure top-three run into a 24th-place finish, the team's strategy has been, basically, the lack of any strategy aside from the most basic -- go fast and see what happens.
"We have not needed a strategy," Johnson said. "We've relied on solid race cars, and that has let me do my job in the car. It has been nice to be so strong and not have to out trick anybody and not do anything fancy."
Johnson has never been in this spot, trying to do enough to maintain a lead without, perhaps, pushing too hard to risk giving the title away. But he has been in contention before, coming to Homestead second in the standings the past two years.
"We've been under pressure and we are a better, stronger, more mature race team from it," he said. "I think the last few weeks we've been able to show that and we've been doing a great job."
If he can do it one more time, the big trophy will be his.
DAVID POOLE is a sports columnist for the Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).