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Jimmie Johnson has led the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver standings since leaving Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in April, when he qualified on the pole, led a race-high 346 laps, and won the race. The victory was his second of 2013 after winning the season-opening Daytona 500. Since then, he and the No. 48 Lowe’s team haven’t looked back, their consistency allowing them to be the first to lock into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Aug. 11 at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
The past three weekends, however, have seen the points lead dwindle after finishes of 40th, 36th and 28th at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway, respectively. Winning the “regular season” is something Johnson and team would like to add to their resume this season despite the fact, as Johnson puts it, “you don’t win anything – not even a T-shirt or a mug” – for the accomplishment.
Another thing the No. 48 Lowe’s team would like is to start the Chase in the top spot. It was a feat Johnson was close to locking down as he owned the top seed over Matt Kenseth prior to the race at Bristol. Both had four wins with Johnson holding the tiebreaker with a next-best finish of second to Kenseth’s fifth. But Kenseth went on to score his fifth win of the season that weekend while Johnson got caught up in someone else’s mess, finishing the aforementioned 36th.
Adding to the mix was last weekend’s win at Atlanta by Kyle Busch, who equaled Johnson’s mark of four wins and two second-place finishes. But the five-time champ still owns that tiebreaker, for now, with a next-best finish of third to Busch’s next-best of fourth.
While it may seem like being in the top-three to start the Chase is good enough, there are several competitors, including Johnson (see his 2004 season), who know that every single point counts. This weekend, the only thing that can give Johnson the top seed when the Chase begins Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., is a win Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
It’s possible, despite the fact that the .75- mile oval ranks in the bottom four, statistically, for Johnson. He does have three wins there and is looking to make it four come Saturday night.
Here's what Johnson had to say heading into Richmond:
What is your mindset going into this weekend?
“We obviously would like to have a good run at Richmond this weekend. We’ve been a little streaky there but we had a good test with the rest of the Hendrick teams a couple of weeks ago. But honestly, the only thing that will help us with the Chase is a win. We are obviously leading the points but all that goes away and we won’t be leading once we get out of Richmond unless we win. I’m proud of the fact that we are the points leader, but you don’t get anything for winning the regular season – no extra points, not even a T-shirt or a mug. Seriously, every point counts and we’d like to have this Lowe’s team start the Chase as the top seed, but doing that means we have to win this weekend.”
Because you have not had to focus on trying to get in the Chase the past few weeks, have you learned anything?
“We’ve worked really hard to maintain the same mindset. There was a year where we started some radical testing and concepts with the car and got off base and entered the Chase pretty weak and not up to par where we wanted to be. So, I think we learned that lesson. I wanted to say that was in 2007 or somewhere in there. But, since then, we really want to perform as well as we can week in and week out. I think there’s a lot in that. And the way things are, anymore, especially with the new car, you have to bring something new to the track each week and keep evolving. So, the mindset that we started the year with is really where we’re at now. We’re not making a stronger effort to try different things with the racecar and the setup. We are fortunate to have a lot of test sessions left. We just tested in New Hampshire and we’re going to test at Richmond next week. We have a few more out there that we’ll try to use to try to be prepared for the Chase. But, honestly, there hasn’t been a different mindset this year. We’ve had pace. We’re proud of that. We need to execute. We’ve left some wins on the table and we need to not do that. But, we’ve got to keep inching forward. We can’t sit still. And we’ll try to carry that momentum right into the start of the Chase.”