Jimmie Johnson is the Sprint Cup point leader. Has been for most of the Chase. Has been for most of his career, it seems.
That could change Sunday, and it’s a possibility Johnson readily acknowledges. With only four races left in the Chase and Johnson poised to win a fifth straight national championship, Sunday’s Amp Energy Juice 500 could be his biggest hurdle.
It’s a 500-mile gamble with every lap a challenge. Even with the best of cars and perfect pit-road strategy, a driver’s day can be ruined by the actions of those around him. At no other track is fortune measured so much by the performances of others.
“I really, really do enjoy racing at this race track,” Johnson said. “I had a blast here in the spring. When you come back at the end of the year and the points are on the line, it is a more stressful event.”
The spring race at Talladega produced typically frantic racing, 88 lead changes and 29 leaders before Kevin Harvick emerged victorious.
Results at Talladega are so haphazard that Johnson suggested – and he was barely kidding – before the start of the Chase that he’d take a top-15 finish at the track to avoid the race altogether. But now he’s looking at Sunday as a chance to widen the gap between himself and second-place Denny Hamlin (six points behind) and third-place Harvick (62 points behind).
“I always want an opportunity to gain points,” Johnson said. “Especially the past three years we’ve left here, this has been a very good track for us in the points. I’m hopeful for that, but the worrying that is going to go on over the next few days, especially during 499 miles of the race – really, even 500, because I think Mark [Martin] was within a mile of the finish line when he got taken out last year running in the top 10 and ended up sliding across the finish line on his roof.
“There is a lot of stress that goes on leading into it. As tight as the points are, we’re going to have to race, and I’m excited for the opportunity to race for this thing. At the end of the day, max points would be ideal, but we’ll just see how things shake out.”
Johnson, who owns one win in 17 tries at Talladega, typically avoids running at the front in the first half of the race in an attempt to miss the big accidents that often trim the field. Sunday’s race? He isn’t doing any forecasts.
“For me, Chad [Knaus, crew chief] and I have a great strategy in mind,” Johnson said. “We know what we are going to do, and we will get out there and race. At the end of the day, you have to race here for a finish, and we need to make sure we race at the right time and with the right cars.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.