- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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With three years in the Chase for the Nextel Cup behind him, and last year's championship trophy bearing his name, Jimmie Johnson knows pressure. He's not saying that will help him win another title, but he doesn't think it will hurt matters any, either.
At Dover, impatience may have played a role in Denny Hamlin making contact with Kyle Petty, an incident that certainly hasn't helped Hamlin's title hopes. Granted, Hamlin is talented enough to be in his second Chase in as many full Cup seasons, but he may have learned the hard way that overexuberance can be a burden.
"It's one of the most challenging things I've ever done," Johnson said of staying under control during the 10-race postseason. "And I think with my experience last year in the Chase and then winning the Chase, it's helped me a lot for this year's mental approach and mind-set. I think that really gives an advantage to past champions.
"I'm not saying a new champion or a guy like Denny Hamlin or Clint Bowyer, who are young to the sport, can't do it, but it's a tough, tough deal to fight through week after week. Experience helps, and you find all the good things out about yourself and even the bad things."
Losing a championship to Kurt Busch by eight points in the Chase's first season helped toughen Johnson's resolve. That may have played a role in keeping the driver focused while rallying to win the title in 2006.
Whatever was involved, Johnson certainly was tested at Kansas Speedway a year ago, when a dominant performance ended up as a 14th-place finish as Tony Stewart won on a fuel-mile gamble. Johnson's championship hopes were seemingly dealt an even bigger blow a week later at Talladega, when Brian Vickers triggered a last-lap wreck that took out Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who appeared destined to take the top two spots.
"I'd say the most despondent I was in the car was after Talladega last year when on the last lap I was coming around to get the checkered flag and was wrecked," Johnson said. "Thankfully there is a lot of water under the bridge, but that was probably one of the most frustrating times in my life."
Johnson left Talladega 156 points back, but had a win and four runner-up finishes over the next five races to climb to the top of the standings.
Bowyer is starting to learn what that roller coaster of emotions can be like as well. Heading to his home track, the Emporia, Kan., native won at New Hampshire to start the Chase and then salvaged a 12th-place finish at Dover after getting caught in the incident between Hamlin and Petty.
Petty confronted Hamlin while Hamlin's car was being repaired and he wasn't the only one who thought Hamlin was at fault. Bowyer said Hamlin needed to give a little ground and race a little smarter.
"Well, I mean, give-and-take goes a long ways on this racetrack. And, you know, I had caught Denny, and he was racing me pretty hard," Bowyer said. "From what I watched, he was racing a lot of people pretty hard all day long.
"But you know, it's just a mistake. I mean, he flat out made a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes. He flat out ran over [Petty]. They don't have to get out of your way. It's called racing, and you know, Kyle has just as much right as Denny does to be out on the racetrack."
All I know is that me and my team are going to show up and give 100 percent. And we feel that if we do that week after week, we can be the champions.
Petty wasn't having a great day, but Bowyer said that was no reason for Hamlin to simply knock him out of the way. Still, Bowyer knows things happen during the course of a race.
"We all make mistakes," Bowyer said. "But like I said, when you're in the thick of a championship and racing for such a prestigious thing and to have that opportunity, you can't afford to make those kind of mistakes."
Kansas Speedway is the only track on the circuit where Johnson has yet to post a top-5 finish, but he has led 126 laps there. He knows a strong finish will be imperative considering how tightly bunched the field is atop the Chase standings.
"I think it's going to stay close for a long time. Once we get down to two races to go, there might be more of a clear favorite," Johnson said. "But if you look at where Denny is in 12th, granted 11 guys could have a bad day, but he's not that far out. I was a lot further out and came back over five or six races or whatever it was last year. So, I'm not counting anyone out.
"I do think that it's tougher this year. You have two more cars in the mix [with the Chase having expanded to 12 drivers]. It's a much more competitive Chase. I think it's going to keep us talking each and every week as to how things unfold and where people are. And I think it's going to be deep into the Chase before we have a clear favorite."
Johnson's plan is simple: He just doesn't plan on worrying about the standings. Maybe he wouldn't feel that way had he not prevailed a year ago, but that's one of the ways his mind-set has changed.
There's no guarantee it will keep him from making the type of mistake Hamlin made at Dover, but Johnson's happy where he's sitting.
"This last weekend, I was shocked to leave [Dover] as close to the point lead as we did. So that was a relief," Johnson said. "But last year, so much of it [wasn't] in your control, and it depends on what happens to other people.
"Each week it changed so much that it was impossible for me to predict. And I tried to, and I tried to understand what was going on. And all I did was make life difficult for me because you get caught up in things that could happen, that might happen, and it's just so hard to predict.
"So this year, I'm not even worried about the way it shakes out as far as from week to week. All I know is that me and my team are going to show up and give 100 percent. And we feel that if we do that week after week, we can be the champions. And that's where we're hanging our hat right now."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.