Jimmie Johnson’s prerace strategy for this weekend is simple – plant a seed of doubt in the mind of opponent Brad Keselowski.
As the clock ticks closer to Sunday’s season finale, which will decide the Sprint Cup championship, Johnson knows from experience that moments of uncertainty will start to flood Keselowski’s mind.
After competing for multiple NASCAR titles – and successfully winning five consecutive – Johnson has learned a lot about racing and the head games that exist at this level.
“The magnitude sets in at some point,” Johnson said of that final race in competing for the title. “…I’ve been there, and I’ve been the guy leading the points and people are so curious to know all these ‘what-ifs’ – what if it happens and you’re forced to answer questions that you’re not used to answering that you don’t want to answer? And it builds through the course of the week.
“Again, it hits everybody differently and there’s no guarantees how it’ll hit him.”
Johnson held the points lead entering the final race in his first four of five successful title runs. But this weekend he finds himself 20 points behind Keselowski, who only needs to finish 15th or higher to take home his first Sprint Cup.
Sitting next to Keselowski on Thursday, Johnson was quick to point out the probability of considering “a top 15 finish as a lay-up is tough.”
“This garage area is tough,” Johnson added. “The weight of this race, I don’t care who you are it’ll show up at some point in time and thoughts will run through your head and with all that being said a 15th-place is not a lay-up for these guys.
“So I have a little stock in that. And we’ll see how they respond. Their trends this year have been strong, but this is a different race.”
Still, Johnson has never come into Homestead-Miami Speedway with the sole intent of winning the race. While his results have been respectable – he has four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 11 starts – Johnson’s average finish of 13.5 is far from stellar.
The fact that Johnson has led just 74 of the 2,793 laps completed proves the No. 48 driver has done far more riding around the 1.5-mile track with the intent of winning the title than winning the race. His career-best finish of second at Homestead came in 2010, when he entered the race with a 15-point deficit to Denny Hamlin, which was under a different points system and roughly translate to a three-point deficit under this one.
For Johnson, Hamlin was easy pickings. Hamlin had lost ground running out of gas the previous week and was already fragile. He appeared nervous during the contenders’ news conference. His resolve melted as the weekend rolled on with Johnson qualifying sixth and Hamlin 37th. Plus the distractions of South Florida’s nightlife were a little too much for Hamlin to overcome.
Hamlin destroyed his car racing aggressively before 25 laps were completed. Despite multiple repairs to Hamlin’s car, he finished 14th. Johnson’s second-place finish was enough for his fifth title.
This year, there’s no doubt Keselowski’s Penske Racing crew will protect its driver to a greater degree than Joe Gibbs Racing did Hamlin. Keselowski will be kept on a short leash — and in close proximity to the racetrack.
While both drivers come from humble beginnings, Keselowski desperately feels the need to prove he belongs – and that will keep him focused on priorities.
Yes, Johnson will plant a seed of doubt. And yes, he knows that regardless of the tough exterior Keselowski has tried to portray, the “aha moment” will come as it does for everyone involved in a championship battle.
“Every guy that goes over the wall to perform the pit stops can have that moment and will have that moment,” Johnson insisted. “Every guy turning a screw, a nut, putting fuel in the car, crew chiefing the race, engineering the race, everybody has the same thing on their mind. You’re protecting something. It is something we have all worked for our whole lives to get to this point. It is a huge, huge moment.
“So regardless of what I say or (any) needling I can do, those moments are going to show up, and if I can plant that seed and help spur that moment along, then cool. But I’m not — I didn’t come in here with a huge agenda thinking that I was going to make a difference in that because I know those moments are going to come. I’ve been there.”
After this weekend, Keselowski can say he has been there, too. But will he fall for Johnson’s intimidation beforehand?
“Well, there’s two types of pressure,” Keselowski said. “…There’s pressure applied and pressure felt. Certainly he’s trying to apply pressure. Certainly I don’t feel any.”
By Sunday night, we’ll know whether Keselowski called Johnson’s bluff.