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NASCAR: Cautious optimism riding with Johnson

By Reid Spencer, Reuters

After Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Jimmie Johnson will likely be a six-time champion.

But, it is dangerous to think that way.

That is why Johnson is circumspect in assessing his title chances, despite having expanded his lead over second-place driver Matt Kenseth to 28 points with a third-place finish in this past Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

“We’re heading into Homestead in the position we want to be in,” Johnson said Sunday night. “I’ll have to go down there and run 400 miles. It’s far from over. You’ve got to finish that race. Although we have a nice cushion, we still have to go down there and take care of business.”

Or as baseball great Yogi Berra once said, much more succinctly, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Johnson knows all too well how much can happen in 400 miles. A part can fail at the most inopportune time. An engine can explode. A tire can blow. A random wreck can wipe out anyone at any time — something that came perilously close to happening to Johnson on Sunday.

Johnson and Carl Edwards were racing side-by-side down the frontstretch at Phoenix when Kevin Harvick saw an opening and dived to the inside, making it three-wide, with Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet on the outside.

Edwards’ Ford broke loose in Turn 1 and knocked Johnson’s Chevy up the track and out of control. But for the five-time champion’s extraordinary reflexes, the 48 would have hit the wall, and Johnson likely would have left Phoenix with a deficit rather than a lead.

If Johnson gets in harm’s way at Homestead, he might not be as fortunate.

Yes, Johnson has a clearly defined target. He will clinch his sixth championship if he finishes: 23rd or better; 24th and leads a lap; or, 25th and leads the most laps.

In essence, he will be racing against a number and not against either Kenseth or third-place Kevin Harvick, who trimmed his deficit to Johnson from 40 to 34 points with his victory at Phoenix.

In the last two races at HMS, Johnson has failed to hit any of those clinch numbers. He ran 32nd in 2011 when Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards battled for the championship. Last year, in a head-to-head contest for the title against Brad Keselowski, Johnson appeared to have the upper hand before a pit road mistake and mechanical failure dropped him to 36th at the finish.

“If we have a hiccup or some type of mistake in Homestead, it’ll be a race between the 20 (Kenseth) and the 29 (Harvick),” Johnson said. “But I feel like if we go down there and run as we should, we should be able to take care of business.”

At Homestead, business starts on Friday. Johnson will need a strong run in time trials to avoid the potential pitfall that cost Denny Hamlin the championship in 2010.

Hamlin led Johnson by 15 points (in the last year of the Latford scoring system) entering the season finale but qualified 37th, spun and slid through the infield grass off Turn 2 while working through heavy traffic on Lap 25 and finished 14th. Johnson ran second and claimed his fifth straight title by a 39-point margin.

Before Johnson can claim championship No. 6, he will have to cross a minefield of random, unpredictable circumstances and hope that good fortune is on his side.

Sure, it is likely that another Yogi Berra quip will be apt next Sunday, namely that Johnson’s championship will be “deja vu all over again.”

But until the checkered flag waves in the Ford EcoBoost 400, the nagging notion that “it ain’t over till it’s over” no doubt will occupy the thoughts of the would-be six-time champion.