FORT WORTH, Texas | NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup can be as much a mental game as it is a competition on the track.
Sleep sometimes comes hard for Jimmie Johnson despite his big points lead. And some of Johnson’s closest pursuers say they are spending as much time thinking about scenarios to catch the leader as they are getting their racecars prepared for the hunt.
One thing all of them agree on is that NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the championship never strays far from their minds.
“I have to work harder to ignore the Chase and what’s going on than anything else in my life right now. I’m sure it’s the same way for anyone that has a shot at this thing,” Johnson said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, where he will go into Sunday’s race with a 183-point lead over runner-up Carl Edwards.
With only three races remaining, lots of people have already conceded Johnson his third straight Cup title. But that doesn’t make things any more comfortable for the Hendrick Motorsports driver.
“I have found that trying to manage my own mind, manage my emotions, it’s a full-time job,” Johnson said. “If you ignore it during the week and show up here on Friday, it’s going to hit you hard and you’re going to be overloaded with it. … I try to keep myself occupied. I try to keep myself busy during the week and try to ignore as much as possible what’s going on.”
Greg Biffle, third in the standings and just two points behind Edwards, also finds it hard to put the chase and the possibilities out of his mind.
“You think about it all the time because this is your life, this sport, and it’s a lot of fun,” Biffle said. “I try and do stuff to try and take my mind off of it and do other stuff, but we’re thinking about it all the time.
“We’ll think about what races are left - ‘OK, Texas, Phoenix, Homestead, how are we gonna run there?’ You kind of play those races through your head. We won here in ‘05 and certainly we feel like we can win here again. We feel like we can win in Phoenix and Homestead.”
That’s what keeps Biffle optimistic in the face of his big points deficit.
“You play those scenarios through your head that we know we’re so many points behind, but we feel like we’re going to be competitive in the next three,” Biffle said. “So, you think about it a lot.”
Fourth-place Jeff Burton, 218 points behind Johnson, is the longest of the long shots for this year’s title. But he, too, can’t get his mind off what could be.
“You constantly think about the Chase,” he said, adding it’s a year-round thing. “You constantly think about making sure you’re in the Chase [and] if you’re not in one of those cars, how to get there. If you are, how to stay there once you get into it. It feels like a whole new year. … If your goal is to win the championship and be the best team out there, then you’re constantly thinking about the Chase.”
If Johnson finishes ninth or better in the remaining races, he will join Cale Yarborough (1976-78) as the only Cup drivers to win three straight titles. But Johnson has been around long enough to know just how fast things can turn sour in NASCAR.
Someone reminded Johnson that Kyle Busch, who dominated the regular season with eight victories and was one of the favorites to win the title, started the 10-race Chase with three straight terrible finishes and was quickly an afterthought.
“Yeah, I look around and I see things that have gone on with other teams, and I face that reality every time I get in the car,” Johnson said. “And I know that anything can happen.
“And again, that’s why we race as hard as we do and why we’ve always said we need to go out and focus on winning races. You don’t know when or if the wheels are going to fall off, and what that will look like, and how many points you really will need to be the champion.”
That’s also the reason nights become particularly difficult for Johnson at this time of year.
“The hardest part is when you lay down in bed and try to go to sleep,” he said. “There’s nothing to keep you busy and you need sleep.
“I probably spend more time thinking about things before I fall asleep and when I wake up than I want to. It certainly cuts down on the sleep. You can’t shut the brain off. The things I’ve been ignoring throughout the day, they are still there.”
But Johnson has been through it twice before - and that definitely helps.
“I found that this year I’ve done a better job of managing those thoughts,” he said. “I almost have a mental checklist. … I’ve looked at my race notes, looked at qualifying notes, covered [my] bases. Then I can sleep.”