You’re probably thinking the fat lady’s sipping her hot tea and honey right now, looking over her sheet music, preparing for her performance on Sunday.
But Johnson knows better. And you know better.
And we all know that in racing, seeming inevitability can transform into utter madness in the blink of an eye.
There’s still 400 miles to go. 28-point lead over Kenseth be damned – the prize may be in sight, but Five-Time knows it’s not yet his. Homestead is the final hurdle.
“It’s far from over,” said Johnson, who finished third yesterday at Phoenix International Raceway after charging from 26th following a Lap 163 incident with Carl Edwards that nearly put him in the wall.
“You’ve got to finish that race. Although we have a nice cushion, we still have to go down there and take care of business.”
And in last year’s season finale at Homestead, Johnson couldn’t do that.
He entered South Florida down 20 points to Brad Keselowski after crashing at PIR the week before, but still found himself with a chance to win the championship in the second half of the race.
But after pitting on Lap 214, Johnson was forced to come back after he pulled out of his pit box with a loose lug nut. Then, on Lap 226, a rear end gear broke on his car and he went to the garage, basically handing the championship to Keselowski with around 40 laps to go.
Johnson finished 36th and dropped to third in the standings, while Keselowski claimed the Cup with a 15th-place result. That episode from one year ago – not to mention Kenseth’s problems yesterday at PIR – illustrates the importance of being perfect in the Chase.
It may not be the most popular way to crown champions, but it certainly provides the pressure-packed environment that breeds champions.
“There’s so many variables in one of our races – I think, more variables than any pro sport out there,” Johnson said. “We have all 43 teams playing, driving, racing, all the mechanical components on the race car, pit stops, other issues on other cars that can take you out, tires…We don’t take any of these weekends lightly.
“Even with a nice points lead, I’m not going to take any week any differently. There’s still a lot of pressure to get the job done, and it’s no lay-up at all.”
And so, while he only needs to finish 23rd or better at Homestead, Johnson is not planning to ease off the throttle and play conservative. He and his Hendrick Motorsports camp recently had a test session on the 1.5-mile oval, and he’ll be back soon enough with the intent to make a statement.
“We’re going to go down there and race as hard as we can,” he said. “…I would love to win the race and win the championship, but we’ll just have to see how things develop in the race and where we are relative to [Kenseth].
“The big prize at the end of the day is what we’re focused on, it’s not so much that individual win, but we need to go down there and be prepared and treat Friday and Saturday like we need to win the race so we can make the car as comfortable and as fast as possible to give us all our options on Sunday.”
Doesn’t sound like a guy that believes the title is all sewn up, does it? If Johnson doesn’t believe it, then you shouldn’t either. At least, not yet.
A lot can happen in 400 miles. This is far from finished.
The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.
Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.
Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.
Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.