If you believe the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup effectively ended yesterday, you can’t be blamed for that.
One day after Jimmie Johnson appeared to put a stranglehold on the championship while Matt Kenseth struggled futilely, it does seem like the game is up and that in six days’ time, Johnson will get his hands on Sprint Cup No. 6 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
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.