For defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the favorites in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, the goal of the Challenger Round was simply to avoid being eliminated.
But with the Contender Round beginning this weekend at Kansas Speedway – and said round ending with an elimination race at the unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway – Johnson figures the pressure to win races and advance to the next round will go up from here on in.
“I feel like for a lot of the Chasers in that first round of the event, you just really kind of had to be ahead of that bottom four,” he said today at Kansas Speedway. “And then we all moved on. And as we get closer to Homestead, I think the intensity for the Chasers is going to start multiplying a bunch as we go.
“I think it starts here. With Talladega at the end of this block, I think the pressure is really going to start ramping up for everybody.”
From the end of last weekend’s Challenger Round finale at Dover, Johnson has stressed how important it will be for himself and the remaining Chasers to score a win either at Kansas or next weekend at Charlotte to avoid the stress of having to survive Talladega in order to reach the Eliminator Round (Top 8).
Johnson feels confident that he can accomplish that mission, which isn’t unreasonable of him considering that he won the Coke 600 at Charlotte back in May. As for Kansas, he expects track position to play a major role in the outcome due to a racing groove that isn’t as wide as some other tracks.
“It puts a huge importance on today in qualifying and the pit road pick,” Johnson said of this afternoon’s qualifying session, slated to begin around 5:45 p.m. ET. “And then when you get in the race, the strategy. We saw a lot of two-tire stuff when we were in the spring and I would imagine it would be the same. So, track position is really going to be the name of the game.”
Johnson is also helped by a decent mental outlook when it comes to Kansas. He’s had a lot of success there and while some drivers may despise the tricky 1.5-mile oval, he usually enters the heartland with a good idea of where he wants to be over the course of the weekend.
“I think we’ve had examples of tracks and drivers over the years that some people just don’t like going to them and that black cloud follows them around and they have a bad day,” he said. “It’s one small piece, I think, of our success and our championships is that the races in the Chase have been good tracks for us. And we show up with smiles on our faces and we kind of know what we’re looking for if we’re off base.”