Jimmie Johnson gets to make a drive for five in Texas with no pressure before going for his record-tying seventh NASCAR championship.
Already locked into the Sprint Cup title-deciding race at Homestead, Johnson doesn’t have to worry about the Chase like seven other drivers who have only two more chances to get a title shot. He can focus Sunday on trying to win the fall race at Texas Motor Speedway for the fifth year in a row.
“We’ve had a great hot streak going, we certainly hope it keeps going,” Johnson said. “But if we show up and the best we can run is 15th, believe me, we’re going to be pretty disappointed in that.”
Johnson has won six Cup races overall at Texas, twice as many as any other driver. Carl Edwards got the last of his three Texas victories eight years ago.
Since Johnson won at Martinsville, in the first race of the third round in the Chase, there is plenty of time to talk about his opportunity to match the seven season championships won by Hall of Fame members Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
Not that Johnson is paying too much attention to any of the talk and speculation.
“I’m kind of immune to it,” he said. “I just have never been caught up in that stuff, and I try even harder now at this point in the year to avoid any media related to myself or my sport, just so I can have my own little universe and just kind of focus on what I think I need to.”
This is the third year of NASCAR’s elimination Chase format. Johnson was already out of contention and played a spoiler role by winning the last two fall races at the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked Texas track.
“Our wins the last two years in this fall race, we’ve actually gone home obviously happy, but also kicking ourselves” he said. “We would have made it to the final round if we would have just had the first part of the Chase under control.”
Last November, Brad Keselowski led 312 of 334 laps and was so close to a win to get one of the final four spots. But Johnson took the lead on the final restart , and Keselowski was eliminated the next week.
Johnson won at Texas in 2014 on the second attempt at a green-white finish, though his victory was overshadowed by the postrace melee between Jeff Gordon and Keselowski on pit road.
When the Chase championship was still determined by the final 10 races, Johnson regained the points lead by winning Texas and went on to win his sixth championship in 2013. That was a year after Johnson left Texas with a win and the lead over Keselowski, who ended rallied to win the 2012 season title.
Another win at Texas this weekend would take away the chance for another contender to automatically advance into one of the remaining three spots for a championship shot at Homestead. He finished fourth at Texas in April with damage to the nose of his car.
While it doesn’t matter where Johnson finishes, his mindset is “exposure to the right pressure” and to keep trying to win. That applies to the driver on late restarts, crew chief Chad Knaus making strategy calls, or the pit crew going over the wall for stops.
“If they got the job done the week before, they’re going to jump off the wall more comfortable and calmer, and can execute hopefully better on that stop at Homestead,” Johnson said. “That’s the stuff I want to keep my team engaged in, just to feel the pressure of competing for the win.”