Johnson Taking Nothing for Granted

Jimmie Johnson

Even after a third-place finish Sunday with a 28-point lead, Johnson is hesitant to celebrate his good fortune ... now needing only to finish 23rd or better in the season finale to win the Sprint Cup Series championship. (Photo: Getty Images)

AVONDALE, Ariz. - He nearly wrecked on the first lap and again later in Sunday’s race.  But if he continues to avoid such problems next weekend, Jimmie Johnson will earn his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Even after his third-place finish in Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Johnson was hesitant to celebrate his good fortune.  He needs only to finish 23rd or better to win the crown.

"Everybody is so eager to predict the champion, but you've got to play the game," he said.  "You've got to run the race and stuff happens.

"There are so many variables in one of our races, I think more variables than any pro sport out there.  We have all 43 teams playing, driving, racing, all the mechanical components on the racecar, pit stops, other issues on other cars that can take you out.  There are a lot of variables, so 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 layup at all."

Those other cars nearly ruined Johnson’s day twice.

His race began inauspiciously.  Johnson didn’t get a good start entering Turn 1 and drifted up the track.  That allowed Joey Logano, who started third, to make a move on the inside.  Logano moved up the track as they ran together in Turn 3.  He bumped Johnson, whose car skated out of the groove.  Kyle Busch slowed to avoid hitting Johnson’s car.

During a caution on Lap 51, crew chief Chad Knaus asked Johnson what happened at the start.

"It went straight in the corner," Johnson radioed Knaus about his Turn-1 entry.  "I couldn’t get the car to turn."

Johnson suspected that low air pressure in the tires contributed to the issue.

On Lap 163, Kevin Harvick dived under Carl Edwards and Johnson entering Turn 1.  The move forced Edwards up the track and he clipped Johnson.  Both Edwards and Johnson skated toward the wall and lost about 10 spots each.

"(Harvick) had a run on the inside and once we all went to the brakes, we were all committed to three-wide in there," Johnson said.  "At the time, I was frustrated.  Happy I didn't crash, and I was hopeful that I didn't lose all that track position and really affect our performance."

While Johnson made it through those issues, Kenseth couldn’t overcome a misbehaving car and a poor pit stop.  That allowed Johnson’s seven-point lead to grow to 28 points and leave Kenseth with a slim chance of winning the title.

"I sympathize with Matt," Johnson said.  "We were in that position last year, and we went to Homestead and still had a shot and put a lot of pressure on (Brad Keselowski).  Then we made mistakes again that took us out of it."

While some will point to Johnson’s recent struggles at Homestead - he’s finished 32nd and 36th in his last two races there - Johnson is not bothered by his record there.

"We're going to go down there and race as hard as we can," he said.  "I think the safest place on the racetrack is up front and if I look back to our Texas performance, we found a way to race smart, stay out of trouble and still get the race won.

"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."

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