Johnson’s daunting task

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 17:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, prepares to drive during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 17, 2014 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

TALLADEGA, AL – OCTOBER 17: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, prepares to drive during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 17, 2014 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

TALLADEGA, Ala.—For practical purposes, if Jimmie Johnson hopes to advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, he has to win Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega, the cutoff race for the Contender Round.

Despite pondering possible strategies for the race, Johnson says he hasn’t come up with a definitive way to approach the make-or-break event.

“I’ve put a lot of time and thought into my approach for this weekend,” Johnson said. “There really isn’t a clear vision for how to make it work. Racing for it can get you in trouble. Riding can get you in trouble. If you ride at some point, you have to go to the front. With this rules package, it’s much more difficult to get track position.

“It seems like, with maybe three pit stops to go, you need to have control of the race and maintain it – or at least be in first or second to be at the head of the line and give yourself a chance to win. So I don’t know… I really don’t. Maybe being cautious early will buy us some time and keep us on the road. From the halfway point of the race on, you have to fight for track position if you want to win.”

Another complication is that at least two other drivers—Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski—are in the same leaky boat. Either they win, or they start working on their 2015 programs.

“There are many other guys out there with the same goal, not only from a Chase situation, but also trying to win a race this year,” Johnson said.

“We’ll get out there to work and see what happens.”

SHORT STROKES

Clint Bowyer was fastest in opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at Talladega Friday, posting a lap at 200.385 mph in the draft, as drivers prepare for the new split-field, short-session qualifying format that will debut at the 2.66-mile speedway on Saturday afternoon.

Two other drivers topped the 200 mph mark, Aric Almirola and Jamie McMurray.

In a second practice session that featured a lower number of drivers choosing to participate (21 versus 46 in the opening session), Kyle Busch was quickest at 195.205 mph, followed by Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne.

In eighth place, with a one-point edge over Matt Kenseth for the final transfer position into the Chase’s Eliminator Round, Kahne likely needs a strong finish on Sunday to keep his championship hopes alive.

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