On brink of 4th championship, Jimmie Johnson won't let his guard down

Points leader won't let guard down with 4th title in grasp

November 20, 2009

As he nears his fourth consecutive championship, Jimmie Johnson says he thinks about the time when he and Rick Hendrick tried to convince Lowe's executives that he could win a race. And when Jeff Gordon took a chance in 2000 on a middle-of-the-pack Busch Series driver looking for a Cup ride, with no hard evidence that this driver was any good.

Even Johnson is in awe of what he has accomplished, entering Sunday's race with a 108-point lead.

"It makes me really proud of what's gone on," Johnson said. "Fans ... don't understand where I come from and my background. … To end up here today, that's why I guess it doesn't bother me to hear that people may not get ... different aspects of what I've done or who I am. I'm just proud of what I've done."

Johnson isn't nervous, but that will change as the race draws nearer. He'll get antsy as he waits between his car and his wife, Chani, while the national anthem plays, wishing they'd just let him get in the car and get to work.

He let his guard down after escaping treacherous Talladega without a scratch and taking a 184-point lead into Texas.

"I am not allowing my mind to slip any," Johnson said. "It's not that it slipped after Talladega, but it was hard to look at a 184-point lead and have something positive come through my mind. Lap 3, it was gone. It was like, 'Wow, I'm not going to let that happen again.' "

For the last week, he has approached the final race as one he needs to win. The lesson Johnson took from Texas was that the safest place to be on the track is near the front.

He has spent his nights running laps in his head, visualizing every turn and irregularity in the track's surface. He has spent his days trying not to think too much about the race, running on the treadmill or focusing on household tasks such as paying bills.

Through the mundane, a record-setting champion - perhaps the best points racer of all time - focuses his energy.

Whole lotta love: Mark Martin was asked during a news conference Thursday where he ranks among the greatest drivers of all time.

"My record does not stand up against the greats in this business," Martin said. "I just want to be a winner."

Knowing Martin's penchant for minimizing his accomplishments, team owner Hendrick stepped in.

"Could I ask a question?" Hendrick said. "Jimmie, would you answer that for Mark, if you think he's one of the greatest?"

Johnson replied: "My answer is yes. He's too humble of a man and doesn't understand what he's done in this sport, for this sport, how many young guys have respected what he's done. You mentioned earlier how we weren't around each other for me to look at your style and want to drive like you. But coming up through ASA, everybody knew who Mark Martin was. I aspired at that time to have people speak of me as they did you."

Pit stops: Jamie McMurray was officially named the driver of the No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet next season. Bass Pro Shops will continue to sponsor the car. … For drivers outside championship contention, this weekend's race lacks much pressure. "When we go to Miami, it's always kind of a relief for me," Denny Hamlin said. "The only time it was stressful was in 2006 when we were racing for a championship." … The Sprint Cup championship trophy, made by Tiffany & Co, is 24 inches tall and weighs almost 27 pounds.

- Tania Ganguli

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