Jimmie Johnson loves to put pressure on other drivers.
But—and there's no simple way to say it, so here's the hard and blunt truth—when the pressure was on Johnson in the final two races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, he folded.
And in almost déjà vu fashion, Johnson finds himself in almost the same exact situation that he was in a year ago at this time.
Flash back to the fall Phoenix race last year. Johnson came into Phoenix International Raceway leading Brad Keselowski by seven points.
That's when Johnson's bid for Sprint Cup championship No. 6 fell apart.
As Keselowski and eventual race winner Kevin Harvick began to pull further and further away from Johnson, the driver of the No. 48 began to push beyond the limits of his car.
End result: He crashed into the wall and watched his seven-point leading coming into PIR wind up being a 20-point deficit behind Keselowski after leaving the Valley of the Sun and heading to the final race of the 2012 season at Homestead Miami Speedway the following week.
That's when the pressure became even more intense for Johnson.
First, his team made a crucial mistake on pit road early on during the Homestead race with a dropped lug nut. Then, just like at Phoenix, Johnson tried to play catch-up—only to push his car too much once again—with the rear gear expiring, thus ending his bid once and for all to still win the championship.
As if to add insult to injury, Johnson didn't even wind up finishing second to eventual champ Keselowski in the final standings: He finished third, behind Keselowski and runner-up Clint Bowyer.
Now, fast forward to the present day. Johnson comes into PIR once again with a seven-point lead in the standings, only instead of Brad Keselowski, it's Matt Kenseth.
Different drivers, but the same scenario.
Johnson absolutely, positively cannot make the same mistake(s) at PIR and Homestead in the final two races of this season that he did in the last two races of last season.
More precisely, he cannot make ANY mistakes in the last two races, period.
Even if Kenseth gets markedly ahead of him in Sunday's race, and maybe even leaves Phoenix with the points lead, Johnson can't panic or cave to the pressure like he did last year.
Johnson has four career wins at the one-mile, nearly flat PIR. Even more, in 20 overall starts there, he has 13 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes. If you're anywhere near Las Vegas and want to bet on as much of a sure thing as possible this weekend, lay your money down on Johnson to at least finish in the top 10 at PIR, if not win for the fifth time there.
But at the same time, I like Kenseth's odds as an underdog or dark horse.
If anyone can beat JJ, MK can.
Let's go back a bit further to the incredible run that saw Johnson win the Sprint Cup championship an unprecedented five times from 2006 through 2010.
Even though he found a different way to win every year, one thing stands out on how Johnson did it five times in a row: He never came into the season-ending race at Homestead faced with a must-win situation.
In other words, he just had to have a fair race, finish decently, not put any pressure on himself, and he wound up with the ultimate prize each time.
Think about it. All he had to do was finish maybe in the top 10—top 15 even—and he took home the Sprint Cup Trophy.
Don't believe me? Here's how Johnson finished at Homestead each of those five championship seasons: ninth (2006), seventh (2007), 15th (2008), fifth (2009) and second (2010).
The 2010 finish really doesn't count as anything spectacular as he still was going to wind up winning the championship that season in a near rout over runner-up Denny Hamlin, leaving Homestead with both a 39-point lead and yet another championship.
Here's an even more interesting fact: Even though he's accumulated 66 wins in his Cup career, Johnson has never won at Homestead, one of only five Cup tracks that he has yet to take the checkered flag (others are Chicago, Kentucky, Michigan and Watkins Glen).
Oh, and by the way, since finishing second to cap off his fifth and last championship, Johnson has finished 32nd and 36th at Homestead the last two seasons.
If Kenseth is to win his second Cup championship, he has to borrow heavily from Keselowski's playbook from last season.
He has to put as much pressure on Johnson as possible.
He has to find a way to make Johnson fall back in the field early on each race (perhaps that's where teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch may be able to give Kenseth a hand).
And most important, Kenseth has to find a way to force Johnson to make crucial mistakes at the most inopportune time.
Oh yes, and Kenseth has to leave Phoenix no less than 10 points behind Johnson in the standings.
Of course, if Kenseth does what Keselowski did last season and lets Johnson seal his own fate by making a mistake or two, it will be Johnson's title to lose.
Just like last year.
Contrary to what many of his most loyal fans might think, Johnson is not infallible.
He can and does make mistakes.
The only thing is those mistakes are fewer and further and less noticeable than all the high points and wins he achieves.
For if Johnson indeed was infallible, we'd be talking about him going for his record-tying seventh Cup championship this year—or maybe even a record-breaking eighth if 2011 hadn't ended up the way it did.
Instead, Johnson will make his third attempt at Cup crown No. 6 in the next two races. He's either going to hit a home run this time or strike out yet again.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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