MIAMI – It's as if your boss ordered you to pick up his new Lamborghini and drive it to his house, via the Cross Bronx Expressway – only if the Cross Bronx Expressway was 401 miles long.
It's as if you stole the keys to your dad's new car, all in an effort to impress that cutie from calculus you've convinced to go out with you and now you have to navigate the 405 – only at 200 miles per hour.
Just don't crash – that's Jimmie Johnson's No. 1 goal this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It might be Nos. 2 and 3, also. Sunday is all about bringing his father (figure) and boss' No. 48 Chevy home without incident.
If he can avoid a wreck, then in all likelihood Johnson will win his second consecutive Nextel Cup championship. If not, then 35 weeks of excellence will go up in a cloud of smoke or cut tires or bent fenders or a blown engine or whatever calamity routinely strikes at the track.
It's the prevent defense of NASCAR.
Johnson leads the Chase for the Nextel Cup by 86 points heading into Sunday's season finale. He got that lead by winning 10 races this season, including four consecutive. The competitor's heart in him ("I feel we can come down here and have another shot at winning") wants to make it five.
But the driver's brain understands that this isn't about finishing under a flurry of checkers.
As long as he comes in among the first 18 cars, even if Jeff Gordon – second in the standings – wins, Johnson's the champ.
The last thing you do in a situation like that is make risky passes or wild charges toward the front. You can't tempt fate.
"I'm trying to be focused on winning the war, not this battle," Johnson said.
This is about the strangest way to win a championship in all of American sports. Oh, other teams try to avoid disaster when holing a commanding lead, be it avoiding unnecessary walks in baseball or trying to grind down the clock, both hands on the ball, in football. A boxer with a commanding lead on the scorecard will all but run in the final round.
But still, just don't crash?
Even Johnson laughs at the absurdity. Going safe is opposite what got him here. So while it makes some sense, it also might screw everything up.
"I really feel that if we try to do anything different, we're going to make mistakes," he said.
So he has to try to drive hard Saturday, but not too hard.
"It's a tough way to race," Johnson said. "You don't get a lot of experience racing that way."
Actually, Johnson has some experience. He did the same thing last year. He had a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth heading into the Ford 400. He needed to finish at least 12th or basically keep Kenseth in sight.
He started 15th. Then, 15 laps in, some debris on the track ripped a hole in his grill. Did his heart sink?
"Oh yeah," Johnson said. "Everything sunk."
Worse, his team didn't have the tape ready to patch it up. Then he nearly pulled out of a pit stop with a loose lug nut. Later, Robby Gordon spun out in front of him and he had to weave on by.
Still, he drove his way back into the top 10, finishing ninth and taking the Cup.
It wasn't as close as 204 when Kurt Busch lost a tire on his way down pit road, but it was a nerve-wracking experience, nonetheless.
"Every pass I made, every spotter, I worried about everything you normally don't worry about," Johnson said. "It's a challenge."
The other thing with playing it safe rather than racing out front is that you can get caught in other people's problems. Wrecks tend to envelop the innocent. Track debris can cut tires, slam engines and cause untold trouble. But to get out front, you have to make some daring passes.
There is no good way. Even Gordon feels for his teammate and friend. And, given that he can probably only win if Johnson finds trouble, he hardly knows what to say.
"We know the only way we can win it this weekend is if Jimmie has a problem," Gordon said.
So Johnson talked about sticking with the plan, whatever that may be. In one breath he said he'd drive normal, meaning going for the win. In the next he talked about safety being his first order of business.
Mostly he looked like a kid at the end of any number of teen movies, hoping to get his dad's car home without scratch – only with 401 miles of 200 mph traffic ahead.
- Cross Bronx Expressway