MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Jimmie Johnson won’t go there until he gets there.
In other words, Johnson has opted not to contemplate winning a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title until he reaches the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Nevertheless, Johnson acknowledges his odds are improved after reaching the Chase’s Round of 8 for the first time since NASCAR adopted its current elimination format in 2014.
“Gosh, this Chase has such a different feeling than Chases I’ve won in the past,” Johnson said before Friday’s opening practice at Martinsville Speedway, site of Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 (1 p.m. ET on NBCSN). “I still feel like I have this massive hurdle to get over to get into the final four.”
So massive, in fact, that Johnson hasn’t entertained the prospect of joining the seven-championship club occupied by NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
“With that in mind, I have not gone there,” said Johnson, an eight-time winner at Martinsville. “My chances are a lot better than they were three weeks ago, for sure, but this format just requires such a different mind-set and a different way to make it to the final four to even have a shot at the championship. Not yet.”
If Johnson doesn’t want to contemplate rarefied air of a seventh title, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon isn’t loath to handicap the chances of the No. 48 team.
“With this new format I think his Achilles was that second round, and by him getting through the second round and being in this round, this is like an excellent opportunity for him.” Gordon said. “I feel very confident they are going to go to Homestead (with a shot at the title).
“This is all predictions and things like that, guesswork. (Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch) are good, but, boy, when you get the No. 48 in a final race for the championship, they do things that are extraordinary. I think their chances are pretty good. I feel very confident they are going to be there in the thick of the battle.”
On the other hand, Gordon doesn’t believe Johnson needs another championship to validate his standing in the sport.
“The other drivers that I’ve competed against, it was always, ‘Well, how good is their car, how good is their team?’ and you always had that question mark,” Gordon said. “With Jimmie, I know. We are driving similar equipment. I get to see what that team does every year and what Jimmie’s talents are. Because of that, I think he is the best that I’ve ever raced against and possibly the best that there has ever been.
“Even days where I felt like I had a car that could compete with him, he did extraordinary things to get more out of it. He’s a pretty calm, cool guy, but, boy, when you put that helmet on him and you get him in the race car, he just becomes another person and takes it to another level.
“He doesn’t have to win the seventh to prove that to me, but I also know that stats and numbers mean a lot out there in the world of comparisons. I think that would be great for him to have that to show the rest of the world that he is one of the best – if not the best.”