Published May 03, 2016
The image Jimmie Johnson has cultivated over the years is of a clean-cut, corporate pitchman, almost the antithesis of the "good 'ol boy" drivers from NASCAR's colorful past.
His conservative driving style has delivered six championships, one behind Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most in Sprint Cup history. Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet is seemingly always in contention, whether he's running at Talladega or Bristol or somewhere in between.
That's what made his radio chatter Saturday night raise some eyebrows.
While the rest of the leaders decided to pit in the closing laps at Kansas Speedway, all of them running low on fuel, Johnson threw caution to the wind. He told crew chief Chad Knaus that he was going to stay on the track, gambling that he would be able to hold off hard-charging Kevin Harvick and the rest of the field — and have enough gas to make it to the finish line.
He would either win or lose, spectacularly.
"Usually Chad gives me some indication early in Turn 3 what he's going to do, and he really didn't say much, so I knew he was thinking hard. And I could see most guys were favoring down and trying to find their way to the apron," Johnson said. "He asked me what I wanted to do and it just dawned on me: We've won two races, we're locked in the Chase, points don't matter.
"It's all about wins," Johnson said. "I said, 'Man, I feel like gambling.'"
It turned out to be the right call, too. Harvick ran out of time trying to chase Johnson down, and the sport's most dominant driver coasted on fumes to his third win of the season.
With a newfound cavalier attitude, Johnson could earn a whole lot more.
That's because in the past NASCAR, rewarded consistency over brilliance. That was never more evident than in 2003, when Matt Kenseth won the championship with 25 top-10 finishes but despite winning one race. Ryan Newman won eight times but failed to finish six other races.
Then came the Chase, which made accumulating points a little less important. So long as you had enough to qualify for NASCAR's version of the playoffs, you could take a few risks.
Then before last season, the rules changed again to essentially guarantee drivers that won a race a spot in the Chase. Suddenly, Johnson and others could take a far different approach on a week-by-week basis. Whereas Johnson may have pitted at Kansas and been content with a top-five finish and the points that came with it, winning became all that mattered.
"It was just kind of a gut feeling, and a split-second decision," Johnson explained, "that we peeled right and pretty much everybody else went left."
The only way Johnson was going to reach victory lane Saturday night was to stay on the track. Harvick had the better car, and Martin Truex Jr. and others were just as fast.
"We knew that we were going to need to have probably four or five guys at the minimum stay out for us to have any shot at pulling it off," Knaus said. "We were tossing back and forth what we should do, and I didn't want to say too much until the very last moment, and when I threw it out there to Jimmie and he said, 'Well, let's gamble,' I was like, 'That's easy. It's done.'"
One of the best drivers in NASCAR history taking on a go-for-broke attitude?
That could make the rest of the "regular season" interesting.
Johnson is among the favorites heading into Saturday night's All-Star race at Charlotte, which he's won four times already. After that comes the Coca-Cola 600, which Johnson won for the fourth time last year by passing Harvick late in the race.
In other words, the No. 4 car may be the fastest just about every week, and Harvick may be the defending series champion and current points leader. But the No. 48 car is still plenty fast, and now Johnson is willing to take some risks to get to the front.
"We're finding ways to win races, but I just think they have a bit more control of their own destiny right now," Johnson said. "We're getting better. We're closing the gap a little bit each week. I think over the off-season we made a tremendous improvement and closed the gap. But we've still got a little bit of work to do."