Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson won't back down

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Chad Knaus started Tuesday’s workday with a pep talk at Hendrick Motorsports. While his team is on the threshold of its sixth Sprint Cup Series championship in eight years, the crew chief for Jimmie Johnson wanted everyone to know they can’t take it easy just yet.

Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship leader Jimmie Johnson (left) and crew chief Chad Knaus (right) will carry a 28-point lead into Sunday's Cup finale.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship leader Jimmie Johnson (left) and crew chief Chad Knaus (right) will carry a 28-point lead into Sunday's Cup finale.

While Johnson can win the championship Sunday with a 23rd-place finish at the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Knaus insisted his team can’t change its approach.

“If you don’t think it’s a fiery ending, go talk to Denny Hamlin and ask him what happened a couple years ago when he came in with the points lead,” Knaus said. “If you don’t think it’s a fiery ending, come over here and hop on the pit box and help me try to call the race and make sure you don’t mess up. It’s a very fiery ending. It’s so easy to throw these things away. We see it time and time again.”

Hamlin led by 15 points heading into the 2010 season-finale. He lost the championship to Johnson by crashing early in the race and finishing 14th.

A year ago Johnson trailed Brad Keselowski by 20 points with one race to go, but his rally fell short with a broken rear-end gear that resulted in a 36th-place finish.

Such problems closing the deal in the past will keep Knaus and Johnson on their toes this Sunday. It also sparks hope for the only two challengers with a mathematical chance to catch Johnson – Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick.

“Well, really, I hate to oversimplify it, but it’s just that, it’s simple: We need to go out here no different than maybe what we did earlier in the season, and that is just throw caution to the wind,” said Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff.

Kenseth trails by 28 points, while Harvick is a distant third with 34-point deficit. The challengers know it will take a catastrophic problem by Johnson to get them back into contention. But with thousands of moving parts on the car and 42 other cars on the track, anything’s possible.

For now, that’s the only hope they can hang onto.

“Obviously even if we lead all the laps and are leading the race, Jimmie and Matt both are going to have to have probably something go wrong during their day,” said Gil Martin, Harvick’s crew chief.

Knaus isn’t taking any chances. He’s bringing the same car Johnson’s driven in four of the past eight races – including a dominating victory two weeks ago at the Texas Motor Speedway.

It usually takes about four weeks to tear a car down after a race and put it back together again. Knaus challenged his team to do their turnarounds at a record pace so they could keep using the same car.

He reminded his team Tuesday their hard work still isn’t done.

“I’d say the biggest thing I told the guys today was what we do between now and Sunday night, whatever we have to do, if we have to work 24 hours a day, if you have to sacrifice time at home, if you have to sacrifice lunch, if you have to do whatever you can to make sure that that car is as prepared as it possibly can be and you are as prepared as you possibly can be for that event, any pain that you feel between now and Sunday you won’t remember that 20 years from now,” Knaus said. “But what you will remember is if you win that championship and you have that ring.”

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