By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway marks the first time Jimmie Johnson has made it to the Championship 4 in this the third season of the current version of the Chase format. The past two seasons have seen Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch win the final race of the season to earn the championship.
Despite 79 career victories, the 1.5-mile track in Florida is one of just four on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule where Johnson has yet to win. However, it’s important to note that Johnson has never needed to win at Homestead.
“It’s incredible to be in this position with this No. 48 Lowe’s team and to have a shot at it,” Johnson said. “We have some serious competition, and we know what we need to do. I’ve never had to go to Miami in the position to win it. With the other formats I either knew what I needed to gain points or defend a lead. This Chase format is intense and we are focused on the goal.”
And it’s not like Johnson’s performance at Homestead-Miami hasn’t been solid as the six-time champion has 10 top-10 results in 15 starts, including runner-up finishes in 2004 and 2010.
Obviously Johnson knows how to win a championship as he vies for his seventh title to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the series record. If Johnson hoists the championship trophy on Sunday, the California native will have won all seven championships from the Hendrick Motorsports shop with Chad Knaus as crew chief and Lowe’s as primary sponsor.
“Obviously we’ve been able to go down to Homestead and bid for the championship in a lot of different scenarios, with a points deficit, with a points lead, and this is definitely unique, starting at zero and just going out there for the best man to win,” Knaus said.
“Quite honestly I think the Lowe’s Chevrolet has been fast over course of the last handful of weeks. Our pit crew has been performing very well. Jimmie is very comfortable and in a good state of mind.”
While statistically it’s been an underperforming season for Johnson and all of Hendrick Motorsports, the No. 48 has recorded four victories, with three of those coming on downforce tracks (Atlanta, Fontana and Charlotte) and the fourth at Martinsville clinching the first spot in the Championship 4.
“We didn’t have very good finishes throughout the summer months, but that’s not necessarily indicative of how we raced. We had some very strong performances,” Knaus said. “Once we got a little bit later into the season, Darlington showed up, Michigan, tracks like that, we really started to put some finishes together and some very, very strong performances.
“It’s no secret that we were not performing the way we wanted to throughout the bulk of the season as a company, so we all buckled down. I think the crew chiefs have put their heads together very well, and really started to work well together. Not that we weren’t before, but we just did it with more vigor than what we had in the past, and I think that’s a direct reason why we have the results that we do now. I think all of our teams are running great.”
Doug Duchardt, General Manager of Hendrick Motorsports, said Johnson’s mental toughness is underestimated.
“He savors these opportunities. He looks forward to challenging himself and being prepared for this, and so Jimmie is just the kid from El Cajon that’s California cool,” said Duchardt.
“I never see him flustered in these situations. He embraces it. He’s looking forward to it, and Jimmie at Homestead is really not much different than Jimmie in Daytona. He’s pretty even keel through the season.”
The victory at Martinsville in the first race of the Chase’s Round of 8 has given Johnson and Knaus three weeks to prepare for the season’s final race.
“Jimmie’s definitely as calm as I’ve ever seen him going into any event, be it a championship, going to a Martinsville race, a Fontana race, whatever race it may be. He feels prepared, and I think his confidence and his calmness comes from being prepared.”
Johnson has a record 26 wins across five other tracks of similar length to Homestead-Miami (Atlanta, Charlotte, Kansas, Las Vegas, Texas). A cool, calm and prepared Johnson spells bad news for the trio of competitors in the Championship 4 and will lead to Johnson earning his record seventh title on Sunday.