Commentary

Johnson wants to win and win

Updated: November 22, 2009, 12:26 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Sometime late Sunday afternoon, as the sun is setting over Homestead-Miami Speedway, odds are one driver will be celebrating a win in Victory Lane and another the Sprint Cup championship on a stage at the start-finish line.

It's different than any other sport in which the winner of the final event is crowned the champion and the focus is all on that person or that team. It's almost an awkward situation when the race winner regrettably is made to feel like a second-class citizen.

Many in the media center can't wait for the race winner to get out of the way so they can get on to the champion's news conference.

Since the modern era of NASCAR began in 1972, with the exception of Jeff Gordon in 1998, that's the way it's been.

Two burnouts. Two celebrations.

Awkward.

Wouldn't it be nice, though, if we had one celebration Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway? Wouldn't it be nice if we could enjoy Jimmie Johnson's historic moment of an unprecedented fourth straight title without the interruption of a competing burnout?

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyJimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have grand plans for Sunday at Homestead.

Or if Johnson has a historic collapse and blows his 108-point lead over Mark Martin, wouldn't it be nice to enjoy Martin's becoming NASCAR's oldest champion at the age of 50 without sharing the moment?

Johnson doesn't plan to collapse. He doesn't plan to coast or be on the defensive, knowing all he has to do is finish 25th or better no matter what anybody else does.

Any doubt about his intentions were erased Friday when he slid the No. 48 car up the track, out of the line of maximum grip into the so-called "dirty stuff" that leaves less talented drivers in the wall, and laid down a pole-winning lap.

He admittedly crossed the line to get everything out of a car that was 21st in practice.

He didn't play it safe then. He won't play it safe Sunday.

"I guess we're not real smart," crew chief Chad Knaus said with a touch of sarcasm. "Every time we go to the racetrack we want to win. That's all there is to it.

"Whoever said you can't win them all, I completely disagree with that person. You can. The probability isn't very high, but the possibility is there every time you go to the track."

That's why Johnson and Knaus are in such rarefied air. They don't come to the track hoping to be a top-10 or top-5 team. They come to win and set a standard none in this sport has witnessed.

That neither they nor Hendrick Motorsports has won at Homestead-Miami Speedway drives them almost as much as the championship.

"I don't think that we have had this track under control as a company," Johnson said. "I feel that we've been close, but Hendrick Motorsports has not won here yet. We hope to change that on Sunday."

[+] EnlargeMarcos Ambrose and Jimmie Johnson
AP Photo/Mel EvansMarcos Ambrose, front, said nobody wants to be the driver to wreck Jimmie Johnson and cost him a fair shot at the title.

The last -- and only -- time in the modern era the driver that won the last race won the championship was Gordon at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1998. Since the Chase began in 2004, the best finish by the season champion was fifth by Kurt Busch in the inaugural year.

Johnson has finished ninth, seventh and 15th the past three years.

It would be nice to see everything in one neat package and tied with a bow.

"There's a window in which I'm willing to take a risk," Johnson said. "You know, if I'm driving to the edge of the car, I know that I can slide it around a little bit more, I'll take that.

"If it's gonna give me seventh I'm going to take it. If I can slide the car around a little bit and be within my comfort zone, have a shot at winning the race, I'm gonna take it. There's no doubt about it."

Johnson rightfully plans to take the same approach he did last weekend at Phoenix, where he led the most laps and won a week after losing 111 points when he fell victim to a Sam Hornish Jr. wreck on Lap 3 at Texas.

Johnson dominated.

He demoralized the competition.

He did the same thing Friday with his qualifying lap that gave him the pole and first choice of pit box.

"We've got a great driver, a guy that doesn't give up easy," Knaus said. "With the way we were running around [before qualifying] he could have given up. We were a half-second off as soon as we unloaded and we stayed off until the final practice was over.

Jimmie Johnson There's a window in which I'm willing to take a risk. You know, if I'm driving to the edge of the car, I know that I can slide it around a little bit more, I'll take that.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"It's just not in his makeup [to give up]. It's pretty fantastic. A big statement by him."

Deep down, Johnson wants to make the ultimate statement by clinching the title with a win. It would be akin to what Knaus called the perfect weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway, where they topped the speed chart in every practice, led the most laps and won the race.

Getting caught up in another driver's mistake shouldn't be an issue. As Marcos Ambrose, who will start third, said, "Jimmie Johnson has a halo bar around his car."

"I know that I don't want to be the guy that ruins his chances," he said. "I will be following him into Turn 1 with a safe distance behind him -- kind of like the Interstate rule."

Johnson plans to keep the competition behind him all day. He wants to ride into the record books in a way that will make Sunday memorable not only for him, but for the entire sport.

He knows no other way. When asked earlier in the week what else matters to him in life outside of racing, he spent almost the entire time talking about racing.

"Racing's it," he said. "It's all I've ever done. I'm glad it's worked out because I don't know what the hell I'd be doing otherwise. I'm finally good at it, and I want to keep it up. I want to keep it going."

He wants to win. Not just four championships. You get the feeling he won't be happy until he surpasses Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven each. You get the feeling he won't stop there.

You get the feeling he can do it.

The best way to do that is win races.

The best way to end this historic march would be to win Sunday, to give us one of those John Elway moments when he was the total focus after finally winning a Super Bowl.

"Every year. Every year," Knaus said when asked if he's pictured such a moment. "I'd love to be the only one doing burnouts after the race."

Wouldn't that be nice?

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

ALSO SEE