BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson is treating Charlotte as a must-win race.
The alternative for the six-time Sprint Cup Series champion is leaving it all up to the chaotic, utterly unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway where a driver’s fate can careen out of his hands in an instant.
“I’m not in the position I want to be in,” Johnson, who won the title last year, said Wednesday during a promotional appearance at UAB. “I hate not being in control of my own destiny. The race in Kansas went about as bad as it could. We need to turn things around in Charlotte so we don’t show up to our most treacherous racetrack needing a win.”
Johnson is last in the 12-driver field, with four getting knocked out after next weekend’s Talladega race. The only way to control his own fate is to pick up his second straight win at Charlotte, securing himself an automatic berth into the next round. Joey Logano claimed a spot by winning at Kansas where Johnson didn’t help his own case.
He was involved in an early accident and finished 40th, his worst Chase finish since the 2005 season finale.
“The first part of the week, we struggled with qualifying,” Johnson said. “Everything on Saturday in race trim, we did much better with the race car, had a competitive car. It was just mired in traffic and on that one restart the 16 car (Greg Biffle) just came up and hit me and spun me around. The 11 car (Denny Hamlin) and I were dancing and I think he finished somewhere in the Top 10, near the Top 5, and I think we could have ended up right there with them but we just got crashed before we had a chance to get there.”
Hamlin finished seventh.
There are worse tracks for Johnson to head to in such a precarious position than Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he won for a record seventh time in May’s Coca-Cola 600.
He’s won twice at Talladega, for that matter.
The huge superspeedway and its ever-present threat of race-altering crashes can work for you or against you. Johnson knows he could advance based on points with a strong performance.
“But I really feel like I have to go to Charlotte and win the race to control my own destiny,” he said.
Johnson is seeking a record-tying seventh series title, which would place him alongside Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
Johnson feels this is the most highly pressurized situation he’s been in since Homestead in 2012, where he and Brad Keselowski were going head to head for the title. A mechanical problem ended Johnson’s chances.
Johnson’s Hendrix Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. is only one spot ahead of him, while Keselowski is 10th and another teammate, Kasey Kahne, stands ninth.
Johnson knows he’d be hypocritical to criticize the old championship format in which he had dominated the series. He won five consecutive championships from 2006 through 2010 and added No. 6 last season.
The new 16-driver elimination system whittles down to four eligible drivers racing in a winner-take-all finale.
Johnson can’t argue with the drama it has generated going into the next two races in a situation that’s not too different from the drama that college football’s four-team playoff could generate late in the season.
“I think it’s going to take things to the next level,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be very important for a handful of guys in Charlotte to have a good race, including myself. Then you roll into Talladega and who knows what environment we’ll have to deal with there.
“But by NASCAR’s design, this is what they wanted. They wanted multiple story lines, they wanted to create drama. And boy, do we have it on an epic level right now.”
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