Sign in to comment!

Menu
Home

NASCAR

Johnson's sixth title in sight but not guaranteed

Homestead, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Jimmie Johnson winning his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship is the main "tropic" of conversation this week at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- the site of the season-ending races for all three of NASCAR's national touring series.

Johnson enters Sunday's 400-mile event at Homestead with a comfortable 28- point lead over Matt Kenseth and a 34-point advantage over Kevin Harvick, who won last weekend's race at Phoenix.

Regardless of where Kenseth, Harvick or any other driver finishes at this 1.5- mile racetrack, Johnson will clinch the championship with a finish of 23rd or better, 24th or higher and at least one lap led or 25th or better and the most laps led.

"Definitely in the position I want to be in," Johnson said during a press conference on Thursday at Homestead. "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."

Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team won a NASCAR-record five consecutive Sprint Cup titles from 2006-10. Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt share the record for most titles in the sport with seven each.

Since the inception of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in 2004, Johnson's team has been in the playoffs for NASCAR's top series each year. Johnson finished just eight points behind champion Kurt Busch in the inaugural Chase nine years ago, making it the closest points margin at the time. Johnson finished sixth in points two years ago, his lowest in the standings during his Cup career. He ended the 2012 season in third-place (40 points behind champion Brad Keselowski).

"I've worked with a lot of fantastic race car drivers, and I've seen a lot of drivers come and go in our sport, but I think that Jimmie is, for me, and for our time, the best driver to ever sit in a race car," Knaus said. "Now, does that mean that he could have taken a 1956 Dodge or Plymouth or something like that and beaten Richard Petty? I have no idea.

"All I can compare it to is the present. All I can compare it to is what we do out there right now and the performance that I see him pull. I think he's pretty remarkable. I'm very, very fortunate to have a driver of that talent."

In the first nine Chase races this season, Johnson has an average finish of 4.7, compared to 9.0 for Kenseth and 7.0 for Harvick. All three drivers have won two races each during the playoffs.

Kenseth had one of his worst races of the season this past Sunday at Phoenix, where he finished 23rd and fell from seven points to 28 behind Johnson, who placed third.

"It was probably our worst performance of the year and really couldn't have came at a worse time," Kenseth said. "We went back and tried to figure out what went wrong. We think we have a handle on what went wrong, tried to figure it out for the next time. Certainly wanted to win. We still have a chance to do that if everything plays out right in our favor, I guess."

Harvick's win there helped him remain in championship contention. Homestead will be his final race with Richard Childress Racing. He is moving over to Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2014 season.

"As you approach the last race of the season, know you're at a deficit and approach it like we did last week, then we have to go out and score maximum points," Harvick said. "We have to figure out how to do that throughout the weekend. Hopefully, we can have a good weekend and control the things that we can control."

Qualifying at Homestead, scheduled for Friday, will be a huge factor. Three years ago, Denny Hamlin entered the season-finale here with a 15-point lead over Johnson, but Hamlin qualified 37th compared to sixth for Johnson.

Hamlin was involved in an early-race accident, making contact with Greg Biffle and then spinning onto the infield grass along the backstretch. Hamlin damaged his front splitter and pitted several times under caution for his team to fix the car. He wound up finishing 14th.

Johnson finished second in that race and concluded his championship season 39 points ahead of Hamlin. NASCAR revised its points format in 2011, implementing a one-point per position (43-1) system. Johnson is the only driver in the Chase-era that overcame a points deficit in the final race of the season.

"Qualifying is so important," he said. "Here it seems we have a lot of green- flag runs. If you start down on track position, don't have your car right come race day, don't make the most of Saturday (final practice), you're going to have a long race, put a lot of pressure on yourself that you don't want."

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, is in his first season as driver of the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing. He has scored a series-leading seven victories this season. Kenseth has one win at Homestead, which came in 2007.

"Obviously, we're not going to make up the deficit on performance," he said. "I think Jimmie could run 28th through the grass or with three wheels on. 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 (in points) or to overtake Jimmie if he has a problem."

Johnson has yet to win in 12 races at Homestead. Harvick is winless in a dozen events here as well.

Forty-three teams are on the entry list for Ford EcoBoost 400.

Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Nov. 17. Race: Ford EcoBoost 400. Site: Homestead-Miami Speedway. Track: 1.5-mile oval. Start time: 3:00 p.m. ET. Laps: 267. Miles: 400.5. 2012 Winner: Jeff Gordon. Television: ESPN. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.