AVONDALE, Ariz. – The trash talk came flying out of Denny Hamlin's camp almost as soon as the checkered flag flew last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Their driver had not only won the race, but had wrestled the points lead away from Jimmie Johnson.
Suddenly the four-time defending champ was on the ropes, somewhere he hasn't been in a long, long, long time, and Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford wasted no time pouncing on the opportunity.
"Guys have tiptoed around them," Ford said following the win. "I'll be right in their face saying it doesn't matter. I think our race team is better than their race team, and I'm not going to tiptoe around them because of where they're at."
Were this Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito, there might be a response. But Johnson, steely, seemingly impervious to pressures that could squeeze a lump of coal into a diamond, has no time for such nonsense.
"I just get in the car, do my thing and go," Johnson said Friday. "The fact that people think so much about what we're trying to do ends up being a mind game in its own. They're almost Jedi mind-tricking themselves."
Maybe, but that doesn't change the fact that Johnson is more vulnerable than he's ever been during his four-year reign.
Six times the Chase has been run, and six times the driver holding the points lead heading into the penultimate race of the season has wound up winning the championship. A lot of that has to do with how good Johnson is at Phoenix International Raceway. In his four-year reign, he's finished first, first, first and second at Phoenix, effectively slamming the door on the competition before the drivers ever reached the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But even his brilliance at PIR might not be enough this year.
Throwing out the spring race at Phoenix, when he was walking around on crutches after reconstructive knee surgery 10 days earlier, Hamlin has finished no worse than sixth at PIR since 2008. At Homestead, Hamlin's gone first, 13th, third and third in the last four races.
Assuming he runs similarly – and considering he's upped his game this season, you'd expect a boost in his performance – Hamlin will be difficult to beat next weekend at Homestead, meaning Johnson and Kevin Harvick (who trails by 59 points) almost have to make up ground at Phoenix.
"That's why I think [this weekend's] very important for us," Hamlin said. "I feel like next week, based on our performance, we can hold our own. So this week is very important to make sure we leave here with a lead."
If Johnson does win, Hamlin maintains the lead as long as he finishes in the top four. (Hamlin could potentially finish fifth and keep the lead if he leads a lap.) If Johnson finishes second, Hamlin could finish as low as 10th (as long as he leads a lap) and still hold the points lead.
"We have to beat him," said Johnson, brushing aside the idea that this is a must-win race for him. "I’m not sure where they’re going to finish, but again, we need to expect the best out of them and that’s going to be those guys running up front. We need to lead a lap, hopefully lead the most laps and win the race.
"Again, at the end of the day, it’s relative to where he’s running or where he finishes and we just don’t know until we get on the track and get out there and see what goes on in the race.”
After 34 races and 10,199 laps covering 13,825 miles, this is what it's come down to – counting just a few positions.