by Charles Krall
He's not talking like it's a certainty at this point, but with three races left in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Jimmie Johnson pretty much can tell the engravers to get started putting his name on the championship trophy with a strong finish in Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Just don't tell him that they're awaiting his call.
"I'm just going racing," Johnson said. "I'm just ignoring as much of the media as I possibly can. I'm not watching the shows and not reading articles. I'm living inside my own head.
"I feel very good about where we're at and I'm trying hard not to pay attention to outside opinions and what's really going on out there.
"So, I'm just keeping my head down and staying focused on the things I can control."
The two-time defending series champion has come to life in the Chase - just as he did in the two previous seasons.
Johnson did not lead the points following the 26th race of the season in either of his previous championship seasons. He was 57 points behind Matt Kenseth prior to the field being reset in 2006 and he trailed Jeff Gordon by 410 points before the '07 reset. This year, his pre-reset total was 302 points behind Kyle Busch.
It's not that Johnson cruises during the regular season; after all, he has 14 regular season wins the past three years.
But Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus save their best for the final 10 races of the year. That has put them within sight of their third consecutive series championship, a feat only Cale Yarborough has accomplished (1976-78).
"I'm a huge Chad Knaus fan," Johnson said. "He's the only crew chief I've worked with in Cup; so again, I have a very limited perspective of it all.
"But I truthfully believe he deserves all the respect in the world, and if my name is considered in top tiers of what drivers have done, his name, rightfully so, needs to be considered in that top tier of what crew chiefs have done."
Johnson's win production is solid - he has seven Chase wins over the past three seasons - but where he excels is his consistent top-five finishes. Last year, Johnson had six top-five finishes in the final 10 races, including four wins. So far in 2008, he has racked up seven straight top-10 finishes with five top-fives, including two wins. His average finish in the seven Chase races this year is 3.7, and that has given him a 183 point-advantage over Carl Edwards with three races left.
"The races are winding down and we're sitting in a good position," Johnson said. "Texas was a great race for us in the spring when we ran there; we ended up second. Plus I feel that we've made our cars better and I'm optimistic and excited to go to Texas this weekend."