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For Johnson, chase for Cup begins now

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

At 33, Jimmie Johnson has grown an appreciation for things like history and legacy. As strange as it may sound coming from a guy who makes both by driving 200 miles per hour, he has learned to slow down and recognize a moment in time for all it's worth.

So in the fading sunlight last Sunday, as he and some of his crew piled into a Corvette for a victory lap to celebrate his third triumph in the Brickyard 400 at famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Johnson took a second to soak it in.

"That is just one of the coolest moments – to experience and just absorb the energy of this place, the history of this track," he said with a smile. "At that point you start thinking about what this place is and what's gone on here."

By Thursday, as Johnson and the 48 team arrived at Pocono Raceway for Sunday's Pennsylvania 500, all of that will be over. No more sappy stuff.

Johnson sole goal now isn't to appreciate the moment, but to concentrate in it. There are six races left until the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and for the man attempting to become the first driver ever to win four consecutive NASCAR Cup championships, it's time to get serious about what's serious.

Sitting in second place in the standings, Johnson is all but assured a spot in the 10-race playoff. Rather than relax in the run up to the Chase, he and his team double up the intensity, because Johnson believes the drive to winning the title in November begins in the dog days of August.

"It's the mental preparation that's needed," he explained. "From a technology standpoint, it's not a lot [of adjustments]. We're kind of there with our package. The cars have been fast. We're not searching for something there.

"It's mostly mental. When you wake up [Sept. 20] in New Hampshire, you know it's championship time. There is just this tension in your body. [You think,] 'Oh, the Chase is starting.' Everything you do – even the meals you eat before the race – you're thinking, 'Today is the day.'

"I know how real that day is and I want us to start thinking that way now. Try to wake up that morning and put the pressure on us now. So when it hits, we're prepared."

You want to know how Jimmie Johnson has put himself on the verge of history?

It isn't by worrying about 4,200 miles of racing in the Chase. It's about figuring out the few inches between his ears.

"That distance," he said, "plays games on you."

Winning the Sprint Cup isn't about winning the most races. It's about finishing with more points than the other 11 drivers in the playoff. There is a difference. It's nice to hit victory lane – Johnson did it three times during last year's Chase – but it's like winning an inning of a baseball game, nice but not always necessary.

To complicate things, in NASCAR, 31 of the cars on the track aren't even competitors for the championship, so it doesn't matter where you finish in relation to them. As the Chase wears on, six, eight, even 10 Chase qualifiers no longer matter.

The system makes for a shifting scoreboard and a reshuffling of a strategy, often on the fly. What seemed like a smart strategy prior to the race can change in the middle of it. Winning the title requires, Johnson says, an entire team that is solely focused on beating the Chase by the Chase's rules.

"I look at the Atlanta race," Johnson said of last year's Pep Boys Auto 500.

It was the fourth-to-last race of the Chase, and Johnson entered with a 149-point lead over Greg Biffle. Johnson proceeded to struggle. He was flagged for speeding on pit road and spent part of the race down a lap.

With 10 laps to go, he'd pushed into 11th place. By some standards, this was an example of salvaging his day.

Yet the top three challengers would have gained ground on him, including Carl Edwards, who had the fastest car and was primed to win the race.

So while the safe play was to cling to what Johnson had and avoid a disaster that could give up even more ground in the points, the smart play was what crew chief Chad Knaus chose.

Armed with all the scientific and performance information available, Knaus decided to make a late-race gamble. He brought Johnson in for fresh tires on Lap 314 of the 325-lap race. Initially Johnson surrendered valuable track position, but on fresher tires he quickly weaved through traffic in a furious final eight-lap charge.

He passed all his competitors (essentially winning an inning against each of them) with the exception of Edwards, who breezed to victory. By finishing second, though, Johnson trimmed the ground Edwards made up and essentially rendered the victory insignificant. In fact, Johnson actually left Atlanta with a larger lead – an insurmountable 183- point advantage – than he had when he arrived.

"Man," Edwards said that day, "Jimmie's magic."

View photo

Jimmie Johnson knows he probably only has one chance to make history and become the first driver to win four straight titles.

For Johnson, it isn't magic; it's about having a team that is razor sharp, battle-tested and capable of ignoring the emotion of a "better result" in search for the "best result."

"It was a gutsy call," Johnson said. "No one else in the Chase was willing to take that risk. Chad had the clarity and felt like it was the right decision amongst all the pressure and made the right call.

"There's been instances like that where we've performed under pressure."

Three weeks later, Johnson joined Cale Yarborough as the only winner of three consecutive Cup championships. And while there are myriad factors that produced it, Johnson insists the mental part is most important. So he takes the NASCAR season now as a time to act like it's the Chase, wholly focused. Perfection, he knows, requires practice.

There has been a decided lack of hype about Johnson's historic quest. Perhaps it's the long season. Perhaps it's the fans' continued lack of passion – one way or the other – for the native Californian. Perhaps it's a backlash against past practices by Hendrick Motorsports or Knaus' various suspensions for "pushing the envelope" and testing NASCAR's strict rules.

Whatever the excuse, Johnson isn't as boring as people think; he just isn't confrontational. He doesn't create wild headlines or stir emotions. He's just really, really good at what he does.

And he really, really wants to make it four in a row.

"I'm trying not to think about the magnitude of it," Johnson said last week. "I know the questions will come, but the longer I can keep that out of my head the better. I did a really good job of that the last couple of seasons."

While it seems odd to say there is some once-in-a-career pressure on Johnson to win – considering the last three years – the truth is this opportunity (a shot at four consecutive) is unlikely to return.

If Johnson doesn't do it this year, he probably won't ever have another shot. He may win one or two more titles, but probably not three in a row again.

Johnson understands this is his shot; it's now or never for history.

"To do something that no one's done before means a lot to me," he said. "I only know that now because of going for three and sharing that experience with Cale. The older I get, too, the more history seems to matter to me, trying to leave a mark in the sport."

So Sunday it begins in earnest. The championship racing doesn't start for six weeks. The reality of preparing for it begins now for the 48 team.

"I just look at what it takes to get there, the preparation, and try to be numb," he said. "OK, I have to work on this. It's not going to be easy. It's not going to be fun."

Unless they win, of course.

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