That’s an oddity, one that both Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have admitted puts them in an awkward spot as they search for their fifth straight Sprint Cup championship.
Johnson typically rolls into Homestead with a relatively safe point lead, wraps up the title with a so-so run and goes home with money and fame. This time, he’s 15 points behind and has to run for all he’s worth, and he’s had to involve himself in the mind games that often take place when points are tight and the season’s end is in sight.
“It is a different year, a different Chase,” Johnson said Thursday. “I kind of think every year is different, for that matter. I know the last four we’ve had the same result. But every year, every championship battle has had its own little quirks to it.
“This year has been very exciting for our sport. There’s been plenty of comments and stuff flying around from all angles, doesn’t matter if it’s drivers, crew chiefs – it’s come from everywhere.”
Johnson said he’s approaching the race as if he has nothing to lose. He doesn’t have the point lead, after all, so he can play the hunter instead of the hunted.
“It’s a much different perspective for us,” he said. “I’ve been here in the past with even a big points lead and have been concerned about dropping the ball. When you’re defending, your mind starts to change and you start to think about the ‘what ifs’. When you’re chasing, it’s more about, ‘What do I need to do?’ It's been a much more relaxed week for me, even though I’m down 15 points, that I’ve experienced before.
“All the jokes aside, it’s just about performing. We need to go out and have a great day. Even then, I have to assume he [Hamlin] is going to have a great day, and so will Kevin. Why not just get it done. I don’t know. Glad to be a part of it and look forward to doing all I can on Sunday.”
Johnson and the other drivers said Thursday they haven’t run through last-lap scenarios to plan the kind of moves they might try to make if the championship decision comes down to the final miles. But, it’s safe to assume some sheet metal might be crumpled.
“I’m not sure any of us can give you an answer,” Johnson said. “We’ll go out and race and see what happens. I mean, it’s tough for us to sit up here – I know you want to hear it – but for sure, if the 11 [Hamlin] is in front of me and we’re coming to the line, I’m going to dump his ass. You can’t say. We’re not thinking about those scenarios. It’s about going out and racing as hard as you can.
“Maybe I’m wrong, but from my standpoint, I haven’t thought about last-lap scenarios and what do I do. I’m more concerned about how can I run as fast as I can and try to outrun these guys.”
And Johnson did take another opportunity to prod Hamlin. “I’m just trying to remind Denny that he has everything to lose and we’re only 15 points back,” he said. “Really not anything to fret over, Denny. But that’s it, you know, just having fun.”
Johnson said the 48 team can win another title by “going out and doing our jobs. We’re capable of doing it. We’ve done it in the past. Now it’s time to step up as a team and go out and do it.”
Johnson said he understands the often-expressed fan sentiment that the sport would benefit if somebody else – anybody else – wins the championship after four straight years of the 48 riding into the sunset with all the gold.
“I guess I do understand if the shoe was on the other foot and I was watching someone take the trophy away four times in a row, I’d get tired of it, too,” he said. “But, believe me, from a guy that spent most of his career as a B to C driver, I’m relishing the spotlight that we’ve been in, enjoying it. I never thought I’d be in this position.”
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.