There are very few certainties in life: death, taxes, and Jimmie Johnson being in contention for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship are about it. But one of those is no longer the sure thing that it had always seemed up to now.
Johnson was the master of the old Chase play-off format, in which the title was decided among 12 drivers over the course of a ten-race mini-season. In the ten years that the season was run in that fashion, Johnson won a staggering six championships. But this year the system has been changed, and it might cost Johnson his chance of adding a seventh Sprint Cup to the trophy cabinet.
The 2014 Chase is now split into three rounds followed by a season finale 'winner take all' race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16. Initially there were 16 drivers in contention, and at the end of each round the lowest-scoring drivers are cut: already we've seen Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger fail to progress from the first round which climaxed at Dover International Raceway.
The second phase of the Chase, dubbed the Contender Round, features races at Kansas Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. The last of these is routinely described by drivers as something of a crapshoot, such a unique venue packed full with incident that no one is safe from being caught up in 'The Big One' and wiped out in a multi-car wreck.
"You just can't predict what's going to happen," agreed Johnson of next week's venue. "That's the wild thing about Talladega. You don't mind crashing if there's five to go; you do if you're trying to get into the championship, but it's just such a risk versus reward management exercise because if you don't have much to lose, you can try to race all day long and try to stay at the head of the pack and out of trouble. But you cycle to the middle of the field at some point; that's inevitable. And if you cycle into the middle of the field at the wrong time and you're in the big one, then you're kicking yourself for racing."
When 'Dega was one of ten races then the risk would be dealt with and controlled to a large degree, but when it's one of three it's a whole different story. Driver now have to put a premium on ensuring they get the most points possible out of the other two races to provide a safety net in case of disaster in the restrictor plate race.
And that is a problem for Johnson, who has already been caught up in a four-car accident at Kansas last weekend that saw him end up classified in 40th position, meaning that he's now dead last among the 12 remaining Chase contenders - just behind his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Penske's Brad Keselowski who both suffered similar fates with tyre failures. Now all three are counting on a strong result at Charlotte to see them through, but only a win will guarantee a transfer to the Eliminator Round of the Chase and only one driver can claim that win - and Johnson is determined that it should be him.
"We are ready to go racing," he said. "The mindset is really to come in and try to take a trophy out of here. That really solves our problem in the points that we have right now. If we can't, we still need to focus on finishing as high as we can.
"The reason that leaves a little bit of hope is that if you miss the big ones in Talladega, you could assume that some of the Chasers will be involved in one or two of those, and you might have another chance," he said. "It is a fading chance, in the position I'm in I believe, but it is still an opportunity and it is something for us to consider. We're here to try and win the race, but if we can't, we still need to finish well, and hope we have some luck down in Talladega."
The accident at Kansas aside, Johnson just hasn't been looking his usual calm, consistent self that has been the secret of his title successes over the last decade.
"We are just not where we want to be," he admitted. "Bottom line. We're working very hard to get there. This sport is not forgiving. What you have accomplished in the past doesn't buy you a damn thing for the present. You have to go out there and earn it, and make the most of it.
"We've been a third to fifth place car, and we can finish there and run there, but we haven't been a dominant car," he added. "We are certainly hoping that when we come to tracks that have been very good for the #48, that we're able to find that little bit, find that extra tenth that put us in that position and get our mojo going the right way."
Charlotte is meant to be one of those tracks that have been good for the team in the past, but qualifying for the Bank of America 500 didn't go as well as hoped and leaves Johnson starting from 21st position on a circuit not known for being an easy place to make up positions during a race.
"That is why I'm hanging on the wall, got to find a different lane," he said. "If I sit there and try to run the bottom with everybody I'm going to junk and just kind of trapped. I have been working bottom, middle, top just making sure that my car has got a nice balance between all three lanes and have been able to produce lap times doing so. Trying to cover all my bases I've got to go forward tomorrow night."
It's not a low-risk strategy, however, and as a result of his experimentation Johnson ended up going into the wall in practice on Friday, although the damage seemed relatively minor and limited to scratched bodywork on the right hand side. The back-up car wasn't required, which is fortunate as that would have forced Johnson to drop to the back for the green flag.
"Just ran out of race track, I was trying to get comfortable at the wall and get my car balance set-up so I could run up there," Johnson confirmed. "The good news is it's just a big scratch on the side of the car ... Nothing looks bent, so just a little drama and new paint job on the right side before the start of the race."
Jeff Gordon has every sympathy for his Hendrick Motorsport team mate going into the crucial Charlotte race on Saturday night. "I feel for them in some ways because I've been there. I've been there where my team mates are running really solid and I drive down in the corner and it just doesn't feel the way I want it to feel," said Gordon, a four-time Cup champion enjoying a resurgence in 2014.
"I have just seen too many times these guys pull it out and do extraordinary things when they seem to be down and out," he said, adding: "I won't be surprised if they still make it to the next round or are a major threat for this championship."
As for Johnson, there is clearly a lot of fight left in the 39-year-old ahead of Charlotte, and the reality is that a win in this week's race would transform his position with a 'get out of jail free' card guaranteeing Johnson a spot in the next round of the Chase alongside Joey Logano, already confirmed as through after winning last week.
"We're not giving up. We're continuing to try," he insisted. "If Kansas didn't happen, I still think we could have made it to Homestead and had a shot. We still have a shot. The situation has changed some and we've got to win, but this team loves adversity. This team thrives on it, and there is no quit in us - we'll keep digging."
But at the same time there was a real sense that even Johnson recognises that he and the team is seriously up against it after Kansas, and that elimination from the Chase next week is now a very real prospect.
"We've been very fortunate to win six championships," he said. "And we know we're not going to win every championship we show up for. But we're going to try. We're going to keep digging and we're not going to stop digging. That's what this year is about, and that's what our team is talking about."