How a two-week head start on the title race affords a better choice for Jimmie Johnson

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FORT WORTH, Texas – While the competition renews its battle for the three remaining championship berths this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson’s team is two weeks ahead of the game.

The six-time Sprint Cup champion, who advanced to the title round for the first time with Sunday’s victory at Martinsville Speedway to open the Round of 8, said the head-start is affording Hendrick Motorsports more wisdom in choosing its No. 48 Chevrolet for the Nov. 20 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“(The Martinsville win) has given us some flexibility,” Johnson said Wednesday during a media availability in Charlotte. “The car we raced in Darlington and a new car we built are both going back to the wind tunnel, and we’ll let the wind tunnel determine which one goes. It’s given us a little time to complete a second car and make a decision between those two.”

Johnson also triumphed at Charlotte Motor Speedway to open the Round of 12. Locking up a berth through the races at Kansas Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway allowed more tuning on his car at Martinsville, where he won at the 0.526-mile oval track for the first time in three years.

“I think it helps,” he said. “The freedom we had to not worry about Talladega opened up some extra time to prep for Martinsville. That’s what I’ve seen so far this week. We did our Tuesday debrief, and we couldn’t get through the Texas prep quick enough because we’re all here to talk about Homestead.

“We stayed long and talked about Homestead, and that led to more conversations (Tuesday) night. So instead of obsessing over (the next two races at) Texas and Phoenix — we’re definitely giving it time and attention — but the obsession is about Homestead. If we can just get a day or two ahead or a few steps ahead and be that much more prepared, the better.”

Johnson, who still could be considered the favorite Sunday at Texas having won the AAA 500 in four consecutive seasons, has no preference on his three opponents in the championship round but jokes he will enter as the underdog at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His average finish of 14.1 at the 1.5-mile track ranks fourth among remaining Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers.

But perhaps the reason Johnson hasn’t won at Miami is because he rarely has entered the race needing a victory. In his first four championships, he was protecting a points lead and finished ninth, seventh 15th and fifth.

“The thing that’s hard is you’re so damn nervous, especially when you’re protecting,” he said. “The fact you run so close to the wall at Homestead when you’re protecting something, you’re so nervous that you’re going to (damage the) right side (of) the car.

“I think the cars were better than (the results). I’m not sure they were dominant cars, but they were better. I was driving around a little concerned, a little scared.”

This is the first time Johnson will contend for the title since the playoff structure was altered in 2014, awarding the championship to the best finish of four contenders at Miami.

The last two instances in which Johnson entered the finale trailing in the standings, Johnson he finished second in 2010 (winning his fifth championship) and led 25 laps in 2012 before a gear failure.

“That was our most competitive race there,” he said. “I’m certainly believing we can race for it. You have to. I think you have to win to win (the championship).”