HOMESTEAD, Fla. — He is not leading the NASCAR Chase for the Championship on the final weekend of the season for the first time in his four-year run as Sprint Cup champion, yet Jimmie Johnson is still the one everyone wants to beat come Sunday at Homestead Miami Speedway.
Some say Johnson is wearing a target on his back so big you can see it all the way from Daytona — 464 kilometres to the north — where talk first surfaced last February that the four consecutive championships of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was hurting interest in the series.
That kind of criticism has followed Johnson all season long, growing louder and louder as both attendance at races and television ratings dropped for the Sprint Cup series.
While Johnson repeatedly said such talk didn’t bother him, on Friday morning he did address the criticism.
“If they are saying that it means we’re doing well,” Johnson told the assembled media at Homestead. “I don’t care what people have to say. I just care about how our team performs.”
When pressed on the issue, however, Johnson said he really didn’t believe his championship run had anything at all to do with falling interest in NASCAR.
“I don’t believe I’m the reason (television ratings are down),” he said. “Attendance has been tough for sport in general. If we are going to blame someone I can be that guy if everybody wants me to be that guy. But I think the problem was there before I came.”
As for Sunday, Johnson said that contrary to popular belief the pressure is not on him even though he is trailing Chase leader Denny Hamlin by 15 points.
Johnson said by being in position to win in the final race is a bit of old hat for him and his team and it is Hamlin who is facing the real pressure of winning his first title.
“For us, we’ve got nothing to lose, (Hamlin) does,” Johnson said. “It’s a much different perspective for us. I’ve been here in the past with even a big points lead and have been concerned about dropping the ball.
“When you’re defending, your mind starts to think about the what-ifs. When you’re chasing it’s more about what you need to do. So it’s been a much more relaxed week for me.”
He said that being forced to be the aggressor has in fact made it easier for him handle what needs to be done for him to complete the drive for five NASCAR championships.
“I’m in a very, very good place racing for this championship, and really enjoying it,” he said.
And he added, he thinks that the tightest race in the history of the Chase makes this year’s final race the most exciting ever.
“I see how it’s good for our sport,” Johnson said. “It’s good for the champion, whoever that guy is going to be. I’m excited for it. Man, I am a race fan at heart.”
He is also a four-time champion who didn’t get there by letting anyone bump him off course, and it is his single mindedness that should put Johnson in a good position to keep his championship belt on Sunday.
On Friday, he said as much himself.
“For sure, if the (No.) 11 is in front of me, (and) we’re coming to the finish line, I’m going to dump his ass,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘We’re not thinking about those scenarios.’ It’s about going out and racing as hard as you can to win.”