HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson was such a favorite to win the championship two weeks ago, souvenirs hailing him as the six-time champion were prematurely released on the Internet.
A flat tire, a brush with the wall and a 32nd-place finish at Phoenix last week changed all that.
The souvenirs have since been removed, along with Johnson’s overwhelming chances. Now he needs to be up front at the end of today’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and something bad to happen to points leader Brad Keselowski.
Although he needs to be 20 positions ahead of Keselowski at the end of the race, Johnson, much like the souvenir company, still seems confident.
“For whatever reason, I’m at peace with my situation,” he said. “I mean, I don’t want to be in this situation, but I am strangely optimistic, and I can’t explain why. There’s just feelings that people have, and I’ll see if this feeling comes true.
“I do believe. I do believe we can win our sixth title. The IndyCar championship is the best example of that this isn’t over until the checkered flag falls.”
Keselowski can win his first Sprint Cup Series championship – as well as the first for car owner Roger Penske – by finishing no worse than 15th. If not for a recent documentary on Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, he would be content with running a conservation pace.
Senna had a commanding lead in the Grand Prix of Monaco in 1988 when his team told him to slow down to take care of his car. That got Senna out of his rhythm and he eventually crashed.
Keselowski said he won’t make the same mistake.
“I think the example I used with Ayrton and what happened to him at Monaco in 1988 was an example of what happens when you adapt your game to somebody else, when you get outside of your own comfort zone,” Keselowski said. “Bad things happen that way, and that shows the importance of focusing on what you’ve done to be successful to that point, and what we’ve done to be successful to this point is be very aggressive, we take shots to win the race, and I foresee us doing the same thing here in Homestead.”
Keselowski will start with an advantage over Johnson. He qualified third behind pole winner Joey Logano and second-place Marcos Ambrose.
Johnson will start 10th.
Keselowski’s edge, real or otherwise, increased Saturday in the final practice session when he was the fourth-quickest overall at 168.161 mph and Johnson was 18th at 166.384.
“Well, if we’re racing each other I’m in trouble,” Johnson said. “We need a big gap between where I am and where he is. That’s really the bottom line.
“You know, this is a different championship battle for me, and I have no problem doing things that I typically wouldn’t do. I mean, if I was coming down here as the points leader I would want to limit these moments, and since I’m not, I’ll do anything you guys want and need. It’s different. I’ve got to play the hand that’s dealt to me, and anything I can do to be effective, I’m going to take that opportunity to do it.”
Carl Edwards will start fourth, followed by Aric Almirola in fifth, Clint Bowyer in sixth, Martin Truex Jr. in seventh, Kyle Busch in eighth and Mark Martin in ninth.
Although he starts with a 20-point lead – and a seven-position head start – Keselowski knows today he still faces 267 of the most-important laps of his young career.
“I want the pressure; that’s what I want,” he said. “That’s what makes it worth something. Without those questions, why am I doing that? I’m just driving a car in a circle. Without having a motivation, it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t strip away your motivation just to remove yourself from pressure because then you can’t justify your existence.”