PLAY­OFF PULL­OUT

Talk of 8th Cup ti­tle doesn’t bother champ

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Brant James FOL­LOW RE­PORTER BRANT JAMES @bran­t­james for break­ing news and anal­y­sis from the track.

Seven-time champ Jim­mie John­son em­braces pres­sure, plus why each con­tender can win and pre­dic­tions

Jim­mie John­son knew there would be no hid­ing from the pres­sure, no de­flect­ing of the pos­si­ble dis­trac­tion of this mon­u­men­tal task.

So he em­braced it. NASCAR is a sport in which the ex­ploits of the ut­terly great have dis­tilled to two the num­ber of driv­ers held to the high­est of re­gard. Richard Petty, Dale Earn­hardt Sr. Seven cham­pi­onships each. No peers.

Or so it was un­til John­son joined them, win­ning his sev­enth last sea­son since mak­ing his de­but with Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports as a full-time Mon­ster En­ergy NASCAR Cup Se­ries driver in 2002.

The pur­suit for sin­gu­lar immortality had be­gun. And so John­son and crew chief Chad Knaus be­gan speak­ing of it as much as striv­ing for it be­fore con­fetti had barely kissed the Home­stead-Mi­ami Speed­way as­phalt last Novem­ber, af­fixed in pud­dles of beer and cham­pagne.

Ar­guably the great­est driver in NASCAR his­tory — re­gard­less of whether he wins at least eight cham­pi­onships — John­son still en­ters the play­offs as some­what of an af­ter­thought de­spite be­ing the de­fend­ing se­ries cham­pion.

His men­ac­ingly pre­dictable spring flour­ish and sum­mer plateau, marked by a gen­eral lack of speed (es­pe­cially com­pared to the Toy­ota fleet), and star­tling lack of im­pres­sive statis­tics en­sure that.

John­son has three wins but just three top-five fin­ishes and eight

top-10s and an av­er­age fin­ish of

16.7 that was bested by 11 of the 16 play­off qual­i­fiers. This does not com­pare fa­vor­ably to the crushing ex­cel­lence of reg­u­lar-sea­son cham­pion Martin Truex Jr. — four wins, 10 top-5s, 17 top-10s and an av­er­age fin­ish of 11.4. Nei­ther do laps led: 1,646 for Truex; 188 for John­son, none in the last nine races.

That should not be con­fused, John­son said, with he and his team en­ter­ing a de­pres­sur­ized post­sea­son. Out­side dis­trac­tions, his team can re­pel. The in­ter­nal ra­di­a­tion of ex­pec­ta­tion is ever present and, as John­son de­tails it, an as­set.

“Pres­sure might be off on the pub­lic side, but what mo­ti­vates me and what gets me in the car and out of bed and my team up early, that pres­sure for eight ... it’s been there the whole time,” he told USA TO­DAY Sports. “It’s not go­ing any­where. That’s what we deal with.

“Speak­ing of the frus­tra­tion of the sum­mer, you start spring so well, sum­mer hits and we want eight so bad. We were think­ing about eight … hon­estly, go back and watch the tape, we were talk­ing about eight on stage in Home­stead be­fore we get the sev­enth tro­phy.

“So it’s been there, and the pres­sure we put on our­selves — no one is go­ing to put pres­sure on us like we put on our­selves. We may be quiet in the pub­lic side, damn, we have a lot of pres­sure on our­selves to go get it.”

John­son en­ters this post­sea­son with much the same feel­ing of last year, he said, hav­ing won early in the sea­son — three times in the first 13 races — to en­sure his play­off spot be­fore “the sum­mer punches us in the face.”

Last sea­son, John­son won two of the first five races, en­ter­ing the post­sea­son in fourth place, six points back. How­ever, he ex­ploited his knack for late-sea­son dra­mat­ics on a pal­ette of tracks on which he has ex­celled — win­ning for the eighth time at Char­lotte Mo­tor Speed­way and ninth at Martinsville Speed­way — and ad­vanc­ing to the four-driver fi­nale. He clinched the ti­tle at Home­stead-Mi­ami Speed­way with his first win there af­ter ri­vals Carl Ed­wards and Joey Logano wrecked in the fi­nal 10 laps. John­son started that race from the rear of the field.

This year, John­son com­mences the 10-race, four-round post­sea­son in fifth place, 36 points be­hind Truex in a new points sys­tem that re­warded reg­u­lar-sea­son abil­ity to win races and stages. Some­where be­hind the gray-flecked beard and jovial smile, there must be some ker­nel of pres­sure for a driver who has ab­so­lutely dom­i­nated the most com­pet­i­tive epoch of NASCAR.

Nei­ther Petty nor Earn­hardt dealt with so many teams ca­pa­ble of win­ning races on a weekly ba­sis. John­son will turn 42 when the play­offs com­mence Sun­day at Chicagoland Speed­way, has a young fam­ily and seem­ingly other things to do in the even­tual fu­ture.

But with seven ti­tles in the vault, to this day still pro­claim­ing his wildest orig­i­nal am­bi­tion in the sport was to win one Cup race, much less his cur­rent 83, John­son doesn’t ex­ude a ner­vous­ness req­ui­site for some­one with time, tal­ent or con­fi­dence leak­ing away.

And know­ing those No. 48 Chevro­lets need to be faster, there is the feel­ing, con­trar­ily, that the things he has seen and done in win­ning cham­pi­onships can be wielded in pur­su­ing the most con­sis­tently ex­cel­lent driv­ers of the reg­u­lar sea­son: Truex and sec­ond­place Kyle Lar­son.

“One thing our team has al­ways been good at is deal­ing with high­pres­sure sit­u­a­tions,” John­son said. “I didn’t know that I was ca­pa­ble of stuff that I pulled off, let alone other in­di­vid­u­als on this team and the way this team works to­gether. So that’s some­thing I have re­ally been proud of and have dis­cov­ered as an elite pro­fes­sional or some­one on top of my game in the Cup se­ries and win­ning th­ese cham­pi­onships.”

One can al­most feel the rest of the field trem­ble a lit­tle.

JOHN DAVID MERCER, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Jim­mie John­son (left) cel­e­brates his sev­enth Cup ti­tle in 2016.

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