Harvick, Kenseth Take it Easy On Johnson

NASCAR

Instead of tossing quips, Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson laughed together as if they were fathers sitting in the back of a PTA meeting. (Photo: Getty Images)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - This was Kevin Harvick’s stage. This was his time to enliven the Sprint Cup championship race at Thursday’s press conference just as he and Jimmie Johnson did three years ago when they ribbed Denny Hamlin.

The barbs flew so much at Hamlin, who led the points at the time, that he acknowledged feeling “awkward’’ on stage with Harvick and Johnson.

Whether the pressure caused Hamlin’s woes that weekend one can argue, but he lost the championship to Johnson that season.

So here was Harvick’s chance to reprise his role as instigator Thursday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Instead of tossing quips, Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson laughed together as if they were fathers sitting in the back of a PTA meeting. While Johnson is not invincible - he failed to win the championship in 2004 and last year when in contention - most understand that words aren’t going to impact him.

“You can kind of sense when somebody is vulnerable,’’ Harvick said of the change in tactics. “(Johnson) has won five championships. You learn more when to pick your battles and when not to pick your battles.’’

Reigning champion Brad Keselowski said recently that the way to beat Johnson is to run him hard. Johnson contested that, but he’ll have another chance to prove his point Friday in practice and qualifying.

Even Keselowski’s contention is true, it will be hard to prove in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400. Johnson leads Kenseth by 28 points and Harvick by 34 points. Unless Johnson encounters problems, he’ll celebrate his sixth series crown in South Florida.

“We control our own destiny,’’ Johnson said. “It does come with a price. There’s a lot of pressure on myself and the team to get things done. We’ll deal with and manage that as the weekend goes on. We’re in the position that we want to be in.’’

Johnson admits he was surprised Harvick and Kenseth didn’t try to unnerve him during Thursday’s session with the media.

Yet, that doesn’t seem to work. Johnson has handled challenges from Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin and Kenseth to win his titles.

Johnson’s focus is among the key elements to his success. Consider that only two people - beside Johnson - have been with the team each year: Crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec.

Sure, Johnson has among the best equipment and arguably the best crew chief, but he still has to produce.

Johnson has done that by refocusing. When he started in Cup, he admits he wasn’t as dedicated to a workout program.

“He didn't enjoy it, he didn't do it,’’ Knaus said. “He would do enough to potentially get by. At that point in time I was probably in a lot better shape than what he was.’’

Johnson now runs, swims and bikes, training for triathlons.

Johnson’s focus carries him late into the evening. He says he visualizes running laps even before going to bed. He learned that from his high school swim coach, who had each person imagine their stroke and making their turns.

“When you hit the track, a lot of times you’re fastest lap is your opening lap in practice,’’ Johnson said. “You can’t show up and think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s what you do, the line you run.’ You think through your notes. So when I hit the track, I’m ready to go.’’

If he makes a mistake, he stops.

“if I don’t make the corner as clean as I want, I’ll start back at the start/finish line,’’ he said. “It’s just the way I’m wired.’’

It’s not just the track that he’s focused on. He visualizes the future and the championships.

“I had a friend tell me something that sticks in the back of my mind,’‘ Johnson said. “I try to think a little bit and dream because he told me, ‘Limits begin where the vision ends.’ There needs to be a vision of some kind.’’

It’s clear what Johnson sees. It’s just a matter of making it happen.

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