18 October 2014
NASCAR Sprint Cup Talladega: The pressure's on Jimmie Johnson
The reigning and six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson knows the pressure is on at Talladega. Can he save his season from ending this weekend?
Few people expected the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to be making its final visit of the year to Talladega Superspeedway with the prospect of reigning champion Jimmie Johnson crashing out of this year's Chase. But that's exactly where we are, and the pressure is undoubtedly on - although Johnson is doing his best not to let it show ahead of Sunday's GEICO 500.
"Talladega takes a lot of pressure off of you until race time because there isn't much you can do," he insisted on Friday. "The relaxed week and my calmness is due to this being Talladega. My job isn't important until Sunday. Then I'm sure the pressure will kick in.
"My quest to win a seventh championship is the thing I'm most concerned about," he said. And he knows that he'll have to do it without much in the way of support from his Hendrick Motorsports team mates all of whom are engrossed in their own title bids. "I know my team mates are going to think the same way and have the same approach. We're out there to win for our teams and ourselves to move on and have a shot at the championship."
Victory this weekend would change his championship prospects at a single stroke, as it would put him safely through to the third phase of the Chase as one of the eight drivers left standing in the Eliminator Round in the new format for the title play-offs. After an accident at Kansas and a costly late pit stop call at Charlotte, Johnson is at the bottom of the points standings along with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth and unlikely to make it through without a win, but having that sort of clear defined objective makes life simple as far as Johnson is concerned.
At least Johnson has won at Talladega before - mind you, there are very few places left now where he hasn't been victorious during the process of picking up six titles in the last decade. But restrictor plate racing at superspeedways is a particular acquired skill, and knowing that he claimed the chequered flag here in 2006 and 2011 to add to three wins at Daytona proves that of all the drivers out on the track this weekend Johnson most definitely has the skills toolset required to clinch a win.
"I'm excited to go racing," he said. "Our plate program has been pretty strong and our car has been fast. We won a few plate races last year and we certainly need to do that this year to keep my championship hopes alive."
Against that is the knowledge that despite having picked up three wins in 2014 (at Charlotte, Dover and Michigan in a four-week purple patch in the early summer) this really can't be said to have been a vintage year for the #48 team once it got down tot he title play-offs where Johnson is usually so formidable.
"When I reflect back on the Chase season so far, we've certainly not had the speed that we wanted in our cars," Johnson admitted. "But based on the majority of our performances, we've kept ourselves in the mix where we had two bad races. Two bad races would have eliminated me from any opportunity of winning a championship in each previous format, so I feel like I have a third opportunity this weekend.
"Granted it's a tough one and a lofty goal; there are many other guys out there with the same goal, not only from a Chase situation but also trying to win a race this year. I've got a lot of work ahead for myself and this team this weekend so we're ready for the challenge. We'll get out there to work and see what happens.
"In certain respects we've struggled for dominance or being the fastest car in most years, I think 2005 was a similar year," he continued. "We just didn't have any pace and were really frustrated. I know it's easy for some to react quickly and say 'It's as worse they've been and things are so bad.' We've been here before and we don't like it. No one likes it. We'll keep working hard to get out of it, and past history shows that we do.
"I think we were in a good position to finish well last weekend, although I don't know if that would have changed much," he added. "Granted, it would have given us a much better position on just a great finish here; we could have gone for a top-five and opened our window to transfer. We'll take our lumps and go. That's all we can do."
One of the more worrying signs of the pressure that Johnson and his team are working under was the unusually fractious relations between Johnson and his long-time crew chief Chad Knaus, with some sharp exchanges over the team radio during the race at Charlotte.
"Frustration is high, for sure," Johnson admitted. "Chad and I in our relationship have had peaks and valleys. We've had times where there has been plenty of frustration on the radio. But who we are and what we are as a team and the way our relationship works and us moving forward.
"Things are still as they have always been," he insisted. "It isn't fun, and I'm sure people hear plenty of colourful things from drivers and crew chiefs during the course of a race. Last weekend there was plenty of colour on our channel. It just comes with the territory. We're not happy with where we're at, and I don't know why we would be. It's unfortunate that sometimes those things are aired on the radio and innocent bystanders hear – children and others out there – but that's just part of it.
"Depending on how this weekend goes, we'll know what the rest of the year looks like for us. If we don't win, it will be in our best interest to look at 2015 and what we need to do on all fronts for the '15 season, including the rules package. Our vision will shift at that point and try to get a head start on the field and start where we need to be."
But such considerations are for Monday morning. Right now, it's all about getting that win and a safe berth in the Eliminator 8 stage. And like everyone else, Johnson has no idea how Sunday's race is going to shake out and what it will do to the Chase line-up.
"It's hard to predict what the race will be like," he said. "We've seen races here that are very aggressive and competitive. Then we've seen races where the lead group of cars decided to run along the top and make it a single-file race. There is no rhyme or reason why that happens.
"Racing for it can get you in trouble. Riding can get you in trouble. If you ride at some point you have to go to the front. With this rules package, it's much more difficult to get track position," he added. "I don't know. I really don't. Maybe being cautious early will buy us some time and keep us on the road. From the halfway point of the race on, you have to fight for track position if you want to win.
"I can promise you that with four guys needing to win to transfer, at the end of the race there will definitely be some racing," he said. "It may be the four of us on the bottom trying to find our way around in a different lane trying to get to the front. But there are at least four that have a really good reason to take chances, be aggressive and try to win.
"A lot of other teams – with this race being so equal for so many – have a chance to win their first race of the year of the first race of the year," he added. "I'd guess it will be an exciting race - but again we just don't know until we get out there."
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