CUP: Johnson In New Role – The Hunter

Jimmie Johnson finds himself in relatively rare territory this weekend. The Sprint Cup championship is two weeks from being decided, and he’s somewhere other than first place.

In each of his four title seasons, Johnson entered the next-to-last race – each year, like this one, at Phoenix International Raceway – in first place in points. In three of those seasons – the last three – he won at Phoenix, putting even more foundation under his championship runs.

This year, the scenario is decidedly different.

Johnson lost the point lead last week to Denny Hamlin, who won at Texas, and is 33 points to the bad entering Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at PIR.

Fortunately for Johnson, Phoenix is virtually a home track for him. His average finish – 4.9 – there is Johnson’s best mark of all Sprint Cup tracks, and he has won four of the past six races at PIR. In 14 races at the track, he has finished outside the top 10 only twice, and he has completed every lap – 4,438 – there.

The setup could be better only if Johnson sat in his customary spot – first.

“Well, the last four years we have been in a different position,” Johnson said. “I have lost plenty of championships in the past [in other series], and this is racing and it doesn’t come easy. You are not going to get what you want every single year and every single weekend.

“I can promise you this: I am trying as hard as I can, I know my team is, and we are doing everything we can. Thirty-three points back is not where we want to be, but we are going to work to get back on top.”

Johnson will seek to eliminate that margin under an extra wave of publicity after crew chief Chad Knaus decided Monday to continue the late-season swap of the No. 48 and No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports pit crews. The crewmen who had pitted Jeff Gordon all season will work for Johnson and Knaus the closing two weeks of the season.

The changes have created a bit of uncertainty and added a definite new flavor to the Chase, but Knaus said it’s all part of the one-for-all, all-for-one platform at Hendrick.

“We operate as a team group,” he said. “To mix these guys up a little is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. I can assure you if we pull this thing off, we’ll all be celebrating just like we always do. We all celebrate if we win.

“This team – we work really, really hard together. That’s the way we do it.”

Can they do it as the hunter and not the hunted?

“We won our first championship by coming from behind,” Knaus said. “We’ll be aggressive. We’ll go after it and attack. That’s our mindset. If we go and lead the most laps and win the race, we win the championship.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for 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.