It took Jimmie Johnson 24 races to lock himself into NASCAR’s playoffs. And now that he’s there for the ninth consecutive year, he only had one thought in mind:
“Now it’s time to get to work.”
Johnson joined Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth in making the first cut last Saturday for the playoffs. All four now have the luxury of using the next two races, including Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, as glorified test sessions. They can afford to try exotic setups and new engine components to get a running start for the playoffs that start Sept. 16 at the Chicagoland Speedway.
“We have been decent in the points so we have kind of tried to step out of the box and do some things to try and learn for the Chase and really be more aggressive with the setup and go for the win and say, ‘Hey, if it doesn’t work we won’t cry over spilled milk.’ That is all you can do. You can’t flip a switch. We are already running as hard as we can,” Biffle said.
“The thing we can do it take some more chances on the setup, whether it might work for the race or not is basically what we have been doing.”
The top 10 drivers in the standings after 26 races move into the Chase. The two highest-ranked drivers with the most victories outside the top 10 also qualify as wild card entries.
There are 10 drivers who still have a mathematical chance be a wild card. For those drivers, each mistake will be magnified in the next two races. That’s why the four who already are in are happy to be free of any pressure – at least until the Chase starts.
“That’s one of your goals at the start of the season,” Kenseth said. “You can’t win the championship without being in the Chase, so I’m happy to be there.”
Johnson won five championships in a row starting in 2006. His team not only saved their best cars, they worked on new ideas in the months leading up to the playoffs.
Others now have the opportunity to do the same.
“You are reading into the thing as a whole and that is where the confidence comes from with myself and the team,” Biffle said. “I feel like we have an opportunity to make a run at this Chase because even though we didn’t win we were off a little bit and finished top-10, top-five and what not. Yes, that is a whole bunch of motivation for us going forward, that and the 10 racetracks that are in the Chase.”
With its high banking and long straightaways, Atlanta is known for being tough on engines. Biffle and Kenseth, who both drive at Roush Fenway Racing, can take more chances with their engine combinations to find more speed for the playoffs, while their teammate, Carl Edwards, will have to stick to more conventional components as he tries to win one of the wild card spots.
The same goes for Johnson and Earnhardt, who are teammates at Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, who also drive for Hendrick, also must be more conservative since they’re in the race for a wild card spot.
“I think we will have to be pretty aggressive on the setups simply for the fact that we won’t have to be conscious of our finishes,” Biffle said. “That is going to be a huge factor, but it is almost like if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. What we are doing is working.”
But as Johnson has proven in the past, that work probably will have to get better.