Jimmie Johnson in uncharted territory
CORAL GABLES, Fla -- Jimmie Johnson sauntered into the ballroom and up to the dais a little late, without a whit of apology. Met with a terse "Welcome" by a NASCAR publicist running the media conference, Johnson didn't even bother to shrug as he said, "I had to go to the bathroom."
It was his way of saying he had been here, to NASCAR's season finale, before. A lot.
Beside him sat Denny Hamlin, squinting painfully into the camera lights, looking a bit lost, seemingly searching for who knew what.
This was the first glimpse of how a four-time champion deals with pressure, and applies it relentlessly to a driver at the brink of his first championship but still with none under his belt.
"We have nothing to lose," Johnson said, then gestured quickly at Hamlin. "This guy does."
Hamlin has a 15-point lead going into Sunday's final race of the Chase, at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But Johnson began spinning the margin as though it were some sort of handicap.
"I've been here in the past, with even a big points lead, and have been concerned about dropping the ball," Johnson said.
He was planting seeds. There was no expectation of rattling Hamlin on Thursday. Only planting seeds of doubt to sprout by Sunday afternoon.
No one would question Johnson's authority on the subject of pressure down the stretch run for a championship, what with his four straight titles. So he rolled on, sticking in the ice picks.
Not since the days of Dale Earnhardt's prime had I heard a veteran so coolly apply so much heat to a younger driver.
For the first time in his streak of championships, Johnson enters the finale behind in points, yet he treated that as blessed relief.
"When you're defending [ahead in the points], your mind starts to change, and you start to think about the 'what ifs'," Johnson said. "When you're chasing, it's more about, 'What do I need to do?' It's been a much more relaxed week for me, even though I'm down 15 points, than I've experienced before."
Kevin Harvick, 46 points out, sat with a carefree smile on his face, on the other side of Hamlin.
It wasn't long before Hamlin was calling this "one of the most awkward 30 minutes I've been through, to be honest with you."
Out in a corridor, after the media conference had broken up, Johnson analyzed the needling he'd given Hamlin.
"I don't think it does anything here," he said. And then he launched into projections based on his own experience. "But when you're trying to go to sleep at night, it'll show up then. It'll show up when you roll off for qualifying."
Onstage with Hamlin, "I could sense the reality of his dreams coming true, right there in front of him," Johnson said. "So no matter what I say, even if he's a pro at blocking out what people say, it's still [only] 15 points and it's still the biggest race of his life.
"I mean, that will get to you at some point. I just hope it gets to him really bad."
Johnson's experience at this ultimate confrontation of the season, versus the inexperience of Hamlin and Harvick at one race for it all, "just boils down to the way you deal with pressure," Johnson said. "Each guy up there spoke of the pressure, what they're doing to help them. But I've sat up there on that stage [on media days for season finales] and laughed ... and you go into qualifying, and the thoughts just start coming up in your head, and they don't go away.
"It doesn't mean they aren't capable of dealing with the pressure. Everybody has to win their first.
"But I can say, out of my four years, the first championship was by far the toughest year for me. Emotionally. Mentally. I mean, you're worried about every damn thing that's going on. Every comment that's said. Everything that's going on in the car. Every noise you hear."
Johnson as sensei was in effect warning the younger Hamlin of what he would go through -- no doubt about it -- through the weekend.
The seasoning makes this a relative breeze for Johnson even though his crew chief, Chad Knaus, on Wednesday had expressed some worry about something new they'll face.
"The biggest concern I've got is that we haven't gone to Homestead to truly race yet," Knaus said during a teleconference, acknowledging that they haven't had to race hard for any of their four titles. "We've gone down there with a bit of a protective mindset. ... We haven't had to be aggressive there, so I think that puts us a little bit behind the eight ball."
Hamlin is plenty experienced at racing all-out here, having won last year. But he wouldn't hold that up as an advantage, because "we're racing a completely different car [with spoilers instead of wings] at a completely different time of day [afternoon instead of twilight and darkness]."
Johnson conceded the 48 team's new need for aggressiveness here will change the way they practice and qualify. Before, they wanted "just a comfortable car, something you could get into situations with and not have any issues. A car that maybe was a little on the tight side, so that you could lean on it and not be on edge all that long, because ..."
And here he slid another long needle into Hamlin: "Because, no matter what anyone says, and those things fire up and we go off pit road and you know this is the race your whole life revolves around, those things are gonna hit you.
"And we tried to make sure we had a very sound, comfortable car to drive. This year we can't have that luxury, a tight race car that'll run top five. We need a car that's fast and is gonna run up front."
And yet this seemed such a breeze of a notion for Johnson in this, his fifth race his life will revolve around, that you had to ask if maybe this will be more fun than the others.
He grinned, laughed, said, "I'll tell you at the end."
Genuinely, he seemed more relaxed, even jovial, than ever before here.
Told of Johnson's further mind games out in the corridor, Hamlin countered, "I'll be honest with you: Their championship roads have been pretty easy. They haven't been in a Chase this tight before. So what makes my pressure any different from theirs?"
But he said it with something of a somber expression, very serious, with nothing like the light demeanor of Johnson.
The difference is that Jimmie Johnson has been here before. A lot.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE END OF THE ROAD
The 2010 Sprint Cup season came down to three drivers -- Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick -- with a shot at the championship trophy. Only one was left standing at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Columns• Hinton: Six in a row for Johnson?
• Blount: Hamlin falls short
• Newton: Harvick serves notice
• Hinton: Sunday should be fun
• Newton: Chase for Cup too close to call
• Blount: Sunset dreams at Homestead
• Newton: Are Chase changes needed?
• Hinton: Bowyer still left wondering
• Hinton: Johnson's back to the wall
• Blount: Harvick channeling his inner-E
• Newton: Hamlin one cool customer
• Blount: Is Hamlin jinxed?
• Newton: Hamlin's crew chief ready to roll
• Newton: Chase drama trumps Edwards' win
Racing Live!• Homestead on ESPN.com: Rewind
Blogs• Smith: A candid conversation with Hamlin
• McGee: Trash talk is good
• Willis: Is it Kevin Harvick's turn?
• Newton: Owners kick-start Homestead week
• Willis: Does Hamlin have confidence?
Practice, qualifying and news• JJ qualifies ahead of Harvick, Hamlin
• Earnhardt unsure crew chief change needed
• Denny Hamlin car at fuel disadvantage
• NASCAR open to Chase changes
More weekend coverage• Edwards wins; Johnson rolls to title | Results
• Kyle Busch takes Nationwide finale
• Kyle Busch rolls in Trucks race
• Danica's Double 2010: End of the line
NASCAR Video• Homestead highlights
• Jimmie Johnson celebrates again
• Hard to swallow for Denny Hamlin
• Sprint Cup qualifying
• Have at it boys remix
• Denny Hamlin's long road back
• Hamlin's crew chief Ford ready
• NASCAR Now: Is the pressure off JJ?
• SportsCenter: Tricky for contenders
• The Final Chase: Kevin Harvick
• The Final Chase: Denny Hamlin
• The Final Chase: Jimmie Johnson
• EA Track Preview: Homestead
• Tale of the tape
Podcasts• Jayski: Ford 400 preview
• Rusty Wallace on Mike & Mike
• Denny Hamlin with Doug Gottlieb
• Jimmie Johnson on Mike & Mike
• Jayski: Jimmie, Denny and Kevin
• Jayski: Around the sport
Chats and wraps• Sunday: Garrow on fantasy, 9:30 a.m. ET
• Thursday: Ed Hinton wrap
• Wednesday: Terry Blount wrap
• Tuesday: David Newton wrap
• Monday: Ryan McGee wrap