LAS VEGAS – It's only the third race of the year. The Chase is months away.
He's leading the points and already has a win – in the biggest race of the season, no less – despite the suspension of his crew chief.
On top of all that, he's the defending winner of Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400.
And, of course, we are in Las Vegas.
But despite all odds seeming to be in his favor, Jimmie Johnson says now is no time to gamble.
"I don't need to take any chances right now," he said.
Seemingly strange words from a guy who is red-hot after two races.
Sure, gunning for wins is nice, but Johnson knows it's more important to be in the top 10 in points after Richmond in September to secure a spot in the season-ending Chase.
"I think right now, everybody is focused on making the cut and getting to Richmond," said Johnson, who will start third behind Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. "We've won already this year and that's something I like to get out of the way as soon as possible. So personally, I'm very content to just get out there and collect maximum points."
Some might say Johnson is being too conservative, perhaps worrying too much. After all, he twice finished runner-up in the final Cup standings and has had no problem qualifying for the Chase in its two-year existence.
And while he credits his team, interim crew chief Darian Grubb and himself with stepping up since crew chief Chad Knaus' suspension – and indeed they have – you'd be hard-pressed to argue that good luck had absolutely nothing to do with Johnson winning at Daytona and crossing the line second at Fontana.
In other words, in spite of Knaus' suspension, everything seems to be going Johnson's way.
As Michael J. Fox's character from "The American President" might tell Johnson if he were a team adviser, "Let's take this 39-point lead out for a spin."
But luck can turn quickly, as Johnson and Co. found out in last year's season finale at Homestead. Johnson began that day with a real shot at the title, but an ill-handling car and ultimately a blown tire dashed any title hopes he had.
A year earlier, mechanical problems and a wreck during the Chase all but erased Johnson's title aspirations – though an amazing run over the final six events almost was enough to beat out Kurt Busch for the championship.
Johnson and the rest of NASCAR also witnessed Elliott Sadler and the No. 38 team's implosion last season, as Sadler sat third in points with just 10 races remaining before the Chase but plummeted far and fast and missed the 10-race "playoff."
So while Johnson is off to a great start, it's needless to say that two races does not a season make.
After all, he may feel like he's pushing his luck already. The team has thrived without Knaus, but that doesn't mean Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports crew is about to tell the erstwhile crew chief to stay at home when his suspension ends.
Johnson describes the suspension of a crew chief as the worst penalty a team can be assessed – though many also called for Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports to each be docked 25 points for cheating ahead of Daytona 500 qualifying.
Minus 25, Johnson still would be the current points leader – and despite the team's success, points for Knaus is a trade he would have been willing to make.
"I would rather take a 25-point hit than lose a crew chief," Johnson said.
Still, missing Knaus has allowed the 48 team to grow closer and stronger, according to Johnson.
"It's not the ideal situation, but we're doing the best we can and actually are having a lot of fun," he said. "We're looking forward to having Chad back, but we're doing the best that we can and it hasn't been too shabby."
Knaus will be eligible to return for the Bristol race weekend in two weeks. And while Johnson says Knaus is chomping at the bit to return, a couple of more weeks of strong finishes would continue to help erase the blow of Knaus' absence.
Or maybe it would just bolster the argument made by those that Johnson is wrong and that losing a crew chief isn't too big a hit to take.
- Chad Knaus