|Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson plans on racing hard today in the hopes of turning next week's finale into a victory lap. (Ross d. franklin/Associated Press)|
Johnson staying cool in desert
His goal is to put heat on Edwards
AVONDALE, Ariz. - Carl Edwards chipped into Jimmie Johnson's points lead with consecutive victories at Atlanta and Texas. Now the championship race has moved into the desert, where Johnson traditionally has turned up the heat on the competition.
This visit is already shaping up to be a repeat: Johnson won the pole at Phoenix International Raceway, and when the sun sets on today's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, Johnson hopes Edwards can no longer be seen in his rearview mirror.
The two-time defending series champion has a 106-point lead over Edwards, and can clinch his third title if he gains 56 points over Edwards today and simply starts the season finale next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Not wanting to use a calculator in the cockpit of his Chevrolet, Johnson will simply run hard and see where he is at the checkered flag.
"My goal is to outrun those guys," Johnson said. "My goal's to win the race, try to lead the most laps, gain points on those guys so that we go to Homestead with as many points as we can.
"That's truthfully the goal. I hope it works that way. No telling if it will. But that's what we're working on."
If history is any indication, Johnson will deliver.
He finished second here in 2006 to widen his points lead from 17 to 63 over Matt Kenseth headed into the finale, where he locked up his first championship a week later.
A year ago, Johnson notched a fourth consecutive victory to stretch his 30-point lead over Jeff Gordon to a decisive 86 points. When Johnson crossed the finish line, Gordon and his entire crew knew their Hendrick Motorsports teammate had just won a second straight championship, and Homestead had been reduced to a coronation.
Now Johnson, winner of the last two Phoenix races, hopes a favorable outcome today will reduce Homestead to a 400-mile victory lap. But he's taking nothing for granted.
"I'm just going to plan on the worst-case scenario for myself, which is [Edwards is] going to have the fastest car and he's coming," Johnson said. "Then that way I'm prepared from A to Z on where I need to be mentally. So we'll just see what happens."
The two contenders were neck-and-neck in yesterday's first practice session, which was paced by Kevin Harvick with Edwards and Johnson running a close second and third. The final session gave Edwards optimism: Johnson slipped to 16th on the speed chart, while Edwards finished in 12th.
Victories the last two weeks have pulled Edwards onto Johnson's bumper, but he still has plenty of speed bumps remaining. No driver in NASCAR history has overcome the deficit Edwards is in, and since the Chase debuted in 2004, the leader at this point of the season has won the title every year.
Edwards has a carefree attitude about the task and is adamant he'll approach it as if it were any other race.
"We've got nothing to lose," Edwards said. "We can just go out and be aggressive and take chances. I can race as hard as I want. I mean, it's cool."
Before Edwards's Atlanta win, the consensus was that Johnson already had the title wrapped up. The back-to-back wins, coupled with Johnson's subpar 15th-place showing last week in Texas, have turned this into a slight race and Edwards has no intention of conceding.
He likes Phoenix and Homestead, where his performance is above average: Edwards has five top 10s in eight Phoenix starts, and three in his four Homestead starts.
"Those are two great racetracks for us," said Edwards. "Phoenix is one of the most fun tracks we go to. I think we're in a good spot right now.
"The bottom line, you know, at the end of all of it is, generally, keep your head up and keep going as hard as you can, and you'll get whatever you deserve."