Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Updated: November 4, 11:29 PM ET
Points, wins drive Jimmie Johnson
By Richard Durrett
There's something about Texas Motor Speedway in the fall that brings out Jimmie Johnson's competitive nature and racing personality.
The track becomes almost like a couch in a sports psychologist's office. There, the straitlaced, hardworking perfectionist is willing, even for just a little while, to reveal how badly he wants to win. And for Johnson, who is closing in on his fourth consecutive championship, it isn't just about NASCAR titles. He wants to win races, too.
Ask Matt Kenseth.
Back in 2007, Johnson entered the Dickies 500 -- the eighth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- nine points behind teammate Jeff Gordon. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, put four new tires on the car late in the race, and Johnson worked his way through the field. With six laps remaining, Johnson was side by side with Kenseth, the leader. A second-place finish would give Johnson the points lead with two races left in the Chase. But he wasn't backing down.
Neither was Kenseth. The two flip-flopped positions nine times in those final half-dozen laps.
At one point, Johnson got sideways, kept the car from spinning out and fell back in line behind Kenseth.
"I had a conversation with myself about risk and reward and what was on the line," Johnson said. "But in my heart, I knew I had the better car and Matt would race clean, and I went back to work to get by him."
Johnson did finally get by Kenseth, winning the race and taking a 30-point lead with him to Phoenix. He went on to win his second consecutive championship.
Johnson's attitude that day showed his confidence in his abilities and team and that he isn't afraid to take chances.
"I think it helped people understand more about me and what's important to me and how strong this team is," Johnson said in a phone interview Tuesday. "We say a lot of things during interviews, and it's nice when we can back them up."
Johnson was referring to his claims before the event that he was racing to win and gain as many points as he could. He showed that in those final laps.
It was Johnson's first win at TMS, a track that has been pivotal in his historic march toward becoming the first driver to win four consecutive championships. It's interesting that the 1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth would be such a comfortable one for Johnson now. It wasn't early in his career.
"We finally got to where we're running better after enough years of embarrassing ourselves and running poorly," said Johnson, who led only three laps in his first eight Cup races there. "The transitions into the corner and off the corners are far different than the other 1.5-mile tracks we race on. Finding the correct line was tough. We had a different setup, even a different engine package."
But a few years ago, Johnson's team figured it out. In 2006, he arrived at TMS 26 points behind the leader as he searched for his first championship. But a solid day that ended with a runner-up finish was enough to put him 17 points ahead. He didn't let off the accelerator in the final two races and finally won the title that had eluded him in 2004 and 2005 when he went into the last race with a chance but couldn't quite get it done.
Now, Johnson sits three races from a fourth straight title. It has allowed him to reflect on what that means.
"The historical sense and all of that stuff builds if and when it's done," said Johnson, not taking anything for granted despite a 184-point lead with three races left. "I'm sure I'll think about that when I'm an old man."
Johnson, still a young man at age 34, doesn't plan to change his strategy this weekend just because he has a big lead in the standings.
"I think if we try to approach it differently, we open ourselves up to make mistakes," Johnson said. "We've operated at a high level and performed really well by trying to win races and be up front. If we get lazy and content and feel like this thing is wrapped up and we only have to finish in a certain spot, we'll make mistakes. We need to treat these next two races like any other race."
And at TMS, that probably means Johnson will be driving hard for the win on the final laps.
Richard Durrett covers motorsports for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.