Johnson relishes new role in Chase finale

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports
Jimmie Johnson heads into the season finale trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points

Johnson relishes new role in Chase finale

Jimmie Johnson heads into the season finale trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – A year ago, Jimmie Johnson celebrated his record fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship by chasing tequila and Red Bulls with tequila and tequilas.

The win-hard, party-hard night turned predictably blurry by the time it moved to a friend's villa at the W Hotel in Miami's South Beach. Eventually someone decided it might be a good idea to throw NASCAR's reigning king, fully clothed, into the pool. Johnson emerged from the water, looked out over the Atlantic and realized it was time to go.

"The sun was coming up," he said.

He was getting picked up in 35 minutes to head to New York for a media tour. Johnson somehow found his room, shaved – "without cutting myself," he said, proudly – and packed his bags. He got downstairs with a few minutes to spare, sat on the curb, slouched over and promptly passed out, just like any old South Beach vagrant.

When his publicist, Kristine Curley, arrived and woke him, he actually looked deceptively spry. "It was all the Red Bull," Johnson said. A few minutes later he was on the phone with the "Mike and Mike" ESPN radio show. After a couple of sentences, Curley realized her driver was in no shape for live interviews. While Johnson managed to make it through, she promptly cancelled all requests until he could catch a few hours of sleep on the plane.

Though once in New York the grilling resumed: interview after cab ride after exhausting interview. All in all, it was a fairly awful way to work off the booze.

Except for one simple fact, of course: No headache can curb that sweet feeling of being crowned the champ.

"It's a great hangover," Johnson noted.

Whether Jimmie Johnson can give himself a fifth consecutive great hangover will be determined 40 miles south of here at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. Unlike his previous four Cup titles, he doesn't arrive with a lead and is, for a change, fighting for his life.

Johnson trails Denny Hamlin by 15 points, a margin small enough to be easily overcome, yet significant enough to cast a major strategic shadow. Kevin Harvick is in third and also within striking distance. The three-way free-for-all has made the entire Chase – and this race in particular – the most compelling in years.

That was evident early Thursday afternoon during a lengthy media session where the three contenders sat in a row on a dais and played mind games. Mostly it was Johnson citing his "experience," mentioning his relaxed state of mind and noting all the "pressure" was on young Denny Hamlin.

Johnson described it as "needling." Hamlin was blunter.

"[Expletive] talk," he said.

And yes, that was the goal. The 15-point margin is doable, especially if Hamlin were to somehow self-destruct. So Johnson kept pushing buttons.

"I'm just trying to remind Denny he has everything to lose," Johnson said through a smile before looking directly at Hamlin. "Nothing to fret about, Denny."

Soon enough Harvick piled on by saying he knew exactly what he was going to do Sunday and noting, not coincidentally, that he'd have no problem putting a fender to his challengers if it was necessary to win.

"You've got to do whatever is best for you," he said unapologetically.

It wasn't long before Hamlin, seated between Johnson and Harvick, was bouncing his legs and describing the entire ordeal as "awkward."

By the time the media session was over and Johnson was being driven back to South Beach for a fan festival, he could laugh about it all. He was relaxed in the back seat of a Chevy SUV, staring at the passing Miami skyline.

This had been a new one for him in NASCAR. The previous four years he arrived holding a huge lead as the presumptive champ. The press conference was full of plaudits and praise.

This, however, was fitting for a soap-opera-rich season that should go down to the final, bitter, thrilling "have-at-it-boys" lap.

And yet with his streak on the line and the title in doubt and some hard racing still to come, Johnson discovered he was calmer than ever.

"I'm in a totally different place," Johnson said of arguably the greatest single challenge of his career. "I've been here before so I know what to expect. And I don't have anything to defend. As much as I'm trying to needle Denny, it's the truth.

"Here's the thing," he explained later. "Judging this Thursday's emotions to the Thursdays of the last four years, it's just a different type of pressure. I've been here protecting [a lead]. The only thing that can hurt you is if something goes wrong. So naturally you think about all the things that could go wrong.

"You spend time worrying about a wreck, a blown tire, running out of gas. You're always thinking, 'Defend, defend, defend.' Then you're caught up in negative thoughts. I don't have anything to defend. I don't have any of that stuff to worry about."

But wouldn't a wreck still end your shot at the title?

"Yes, but it's almost glorious if you crash out in a big fiery mess trying to win your fifth consecutive championship. If you crash out with a points lead, you're just the guy that choked."

The truth is Johnson does have a lot to lose. Realistically this is his only chance to win a fifth consecutive Cup. He may win again, but once the streak, half a decade in the making, is gone, it's gone. Fans may see a guy who's won enough. The guy sees a once-in-lifetime opportunity to accomplish what no one else ever has. Even Hamlin admits that if someone other than the 48 triumphs, "half the headlines" will be about how Johnson lost, not who won.

Hamlin wants it that way. Someone is going to eventually knock Johnson off the mountain. That driver becomes an instant legend.

"That's the thing I'm relishing right now, being the guy who does that," Hamlin said after the media conference. "For me, if I don't win, I hope Jimmie continues his win streak because next year I'll try to [end it again]. Everybody wants to be that guy who ends the streak."

When Johnson heard what Hamlin had to say, he just laughed.

"If Denny doesn't win, I hope I win too."

Here's the best part of this three-man race – none of them are teammates. They aren't necessarily enemies – Johnson isn't much for that – but there's a limit to the interaction. For too many years Johnson sat up on a final weekend media session next to a teammate, or if it wasn't a teammate it was someone who was so far behind in second place their only hope was Johnson crashing. There was little emotion. It was boring.

This is different.

Johnson heard Harvick talk about wrecking the others on the final lap and wondered if he meant it. Harvick might, Johnson concluded.

"There were points in our career where we've had some heated moments, some not so good moments," Johnson said. "I don't know. I know he can be very aggressive in the car, especially if you roughhouse him. You're going to get it [back] four times. It's not, 'I'm going to get you back.' It's, 'I'm really going to get you back.' "

As for Hamlin, "We don't necessarily hang out, but there's been a mutual level of respect," Johnson said.

"I have to give him credit. Each year when we've been at the championship party on South Beach he comes over. Each year he has bought me a bottle of champagne, raised a glass and been very respectful.

"And he's always made it known he looks forward to the day I have to buy him a bottle of champagne.

"I guess one of these days that will happen. I just hope it won't be Sunday."

After his promotional duties where done, Johnson spent a couple hours Thursday evening with his wife and four-month-old daughter in his hotel suite. He helped give little Genevieve a bath and get ready for bed. Becoming a father has changed his life. His cell phone is full of pictures that he shows off without prompting.

Off the track, it's been a great year. On it, the drive for five has been a slog.

Johnson's Lowes Chevy hasn't been its usual rocket ship this season. For much of the year Hamlin has had a better car. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had to dismiss their pit team for poor performance a couple weeks back in the middle of a race. It took a fortunate gamble on fuel last week in Phoenix just to keep Johnson alive.

"It's been a scrappy year for us," he said. "We haven't had some extra speed to rely on. We've gone out and earned every point."

Friday the 48 car will practice and then plot its strategy. What Johnson loves about having to come from behind is the freedom to be aggressive in the set up. He's been the favorite so long, he cherishes the role reversal. He and Knaus will be bold in adjusting the car to win.

"Ideally you fine-tune," Johnson explained. "This year, at different points, it hasn't been uncommon to show up with one package, [hit] control-alt-delete, and go with a different package.

"If you're protecting [a lead] you're really reluctant to make change. The situation we're in, if we're running something and it's third- or fourth-place in practice, well, that ain't cutting it. We'll keep working."

He was thrilled at the prospect of the big gamble, the all-in race. Winning four Cups has been great. But the childhood dream is always rooted in the dramatic, not in the dominance. You want to hit the ninth-inning, Game 7 home run, not close out a sweep 10-0.

So here we are: something new as Johnson pursues something old.

"It's the most fun I've had," he said.

Thursday night he was back at the W, site of last year's curb-above-the-gutter daybreak nap. He stood in the spot where he slept and laughed at the recollection.

Now his daughter was asleep in a hotel suite above; his wife and mother-in-law tending to her care. Johnson was heading out to Juan Pablo Montoya's BeLive charity function at the Fountain Blue Hotel. He wanted to support his friend, even if he could only stay an hour. He drank water.

He needed his sleep, although he appeared fully relaxed at the party. He joked. He told stories. He posed for pictures. He signed autographs.

No pressure. No nerves. Not a worry in the world on the eve of the big weekend.

Jimmie Johnson is here to win. Again. Let Hamlin deal with the pressure. The Champ has one more great hangover in his sights.

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