Johnson has celebrated at Homestead the past four seasons, awash in the glow of a string of Cup championships. Yet it was been other drivers taking the Homestead checkered flags. In nine races there, Johnson has no victories and a 12.7 average finish, the worst of the three championship contenders.
Of course, all is not as it seems. Johnson generally has had the luxury of rolling into south Florida without needing to win the race to win the title, so his Homestead statistics perhaps are a bit distorted.
This year, there can be no question about Johnson’s goal. With Denny Hamlin leading him by 15 points in the Chase standings, Johnson must assume that he will need a win to claim title No. 5. He could win the championship without a victory if Hamlin and third-place Kevin Harvick stumble badly, but the 48 team can’t depend on those possibilities.
So, for the first time, Johnson enters Homestead not with a point lead to protect but with a gap to dissolve. And he’ll be shooting to become only the third driver since 1975 to overcome a deficit in the season’s last race to win the championship.
“Maybe at Homestead we’ve been able to protect, but we certainly know that’s not the case this year, and I love where we are,” Johnson said. “I love putting pressure on these guys, and, in fact, I’m glad we cut their lead in half.”
Johnson clearly is taking the role of the aggressive challenger, one he seems to enjoy. After Hamlin’s point lead was sliced last week at Phoenix, Johnson put a target on the Homestead weekend and immediately began reacting to talk that his past performances there have been less than stellar.
“I’m not sure why that’s even relevant,” he said. “If you look at points accumulated over the course of the Chase, I think that will speak volumes as to what type of Chase took place. I know we’ve been competitive, but not as dominant as we wanted to all year long.
“We’ve got to go down there and race for it. There’s no doubt about it. I continue to hear that the No. 48 hasn’t had to race for it before, and we’ve raced for it all Chase long.
“I don't care how I win it. However we win it, that’s cool. I would love to come back and win from behind and eliminate that stat because that seems to be the only thing that everyone talks about right now.
“When I look at the way we started the Chase, I’m more frustrated at what we did then, in the fact we didn’t capitalize at Loudon. Last week we missed a pit call late in the race. Everybody behind us had tires on. We ended up ninth. When you go back through the season, look at little things, we’ve left points on the table. That’s unlike us from years past. That’s the part we’re fighting right now.”
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.