With a 28-point advantage entering the final race of the Sprint Cup season at Homestead Miami Speedway, Jimmie Johnson is “definitely in the position" he wants to be in.
All Johnson needs to do is finish 23rd or higher in order to earn the coveted “Six-Pack” that has eluded the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team the last two years.
The five-time champion has never lost the title when entering the season finale with the points lead.
“Defending is the place of control of the points lead,” Johnson said. “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. We’ll deal and manage that as the weekend goes on, but 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.”
Second-place Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick, who is third in the standings, 34 points back, seemed resigned on Thursday to allow Johnson to enjoy that role. It’s one that has become very familiar to the competition in the past decade since the Chase for the Sprint Cup was introduced.
“The one thing I don’t like is there’s one guy that thinks he has to win every single one of them,” Kenseth said of Johnson with a laugh. “Doesn’t leave much for the rest of us.”
Since Johnson’s first full season on the Sprint Cup tour in 2002, he has never finished worse than sixth in the points standings. In 2003 and 2004, Johnson lost title bouts to Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, respectively — the latter season being his most emotional defeat, considering it was the same year the Hendrick team plane crashed while on the way to Martinsville Speedway.
Johnson came back with an unprecedented five-title streak from 2006-10. Last year’s loss to Brad Keselowski became “a good lesson” for Johnson and has helped him strategically through 2013’s Chase battle.
But his attempt at a sixth consecutive title in 2011 is still a bitter pill. Johnson fell outside of the top five in the standings for the first time in his career. The phone didn’t ring. For the first time since the Chase started, there was no invitation to the Championship Contenders press conference.
“We felt like things were going our way after Texas with the points lead,” Johnson said of 2012. “We go to Phoenix and the wheels fell off — literally, we blew a right front. Then we had trouble here, but I really felt good about the team’s performance and what I did as a driver last year. You’ve got to admit when you have a good year and you just come up short, you can’t just thrash yourself over it. Last year wasn’t that difficult on me, even though we lost in a way that wasn’t that much fun.
“The hardest year on me was 2011. We weren’t even a factor. I wasn’t a part of the press conference. I can remember seeing on Twitter and hearing about it. Carl (Edwards) and Tony (Stewart) 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. Having a chance at one, being here on this day is a huge bonus in itself.”
Unlike his competition, Johnson is savoring the moment. After coming off of a brutal 23rd-place run and losing 21 additional points to Johnson at Phoenix, Kenseth might as well have been waving a white towel as he claimed, “Obviously, we’re not going to make up the deficit on performance.”
“I think Jimmie could run 28th through the grass or with three on,” Kenseth said with a laugh. “He’s going to have to have a mechanical problem or crash to make something happen. We’ll have to be up in the top five to hold on to second or to overtake Jimmie if he has a problem.”
Harvick’s victory last weekend at Phoenix means he can leave Richard Childress Racing after this weekend on a high note. His only title hope is for the No. 48 Chevy to have a catastrophic failure. But given Harvick’s history, he says he’s willing to let the race “play out.”
“Just the type of team we are, we race up until the last lap,” Harvick said. “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 falls.”
Certainly, the mood this year is different among the contenders. The air of tension that generally exists before the final race was non-existent on Thursday. Without sounding egotistical, Johnson believes there’s nothing he, Kenseth or Harvick can say that would instill anxiety in each other. All three drivers understand it’s best for the championship to be decided on the racetrack.
“I’ve got a nice-sized point lead and I’ve been here before,” Johnson said. “When you have an opportunity to get somewhere is when it’s close and tight and you can feel the tension in the room and maybe they don’t have as much experience and you think maybe you can try something, that’s when the opportunities present themselves.
"I think between the three of us, we’ve been doing this so long there’s really just not much we can do.”