Jimmie Johnson expects nothing short of a win this Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be enough for him to beat Denny Hamlin to what would be his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup series title.
The reigning champion heads into the season finale not leading the points for the first time since 2006 and carrying a 15-point deficit to Chase leader Denny Hamlin, who has won eight races this year to Johnson's six.
Kevin Harvick also heads in with a good championship chance on Sunday, as he trails Hamlin by only 46 points.
Despite being at a disadvantage mathematically, Johnson says he feels comfortable about his current position and claims to be the most relaxed he has been for the past few years not having to defend the lead in the standings as the title decider unfolds.
"For us, we've got nothing to lose, this guy [Denny Hamlin] does," said Johnson during Thursday's press conference at Miami. "It's a much different perspective for us. I've been here in the past with even a big points lead and have been concerned about dropping the ball.
"When you're defending, your mind starts to think about the what-ifs. When you're chasing it's more about what you need to do. So it's been a much more relaxed week for me, even though I'm 15 points behind from what I've experienced before. All the joking aside, it's just about performing and we need to go out and have a great day. And even then, I have to assume he's going to have a great day and so does Kevin. A great day may not get it done."
For the past few years, Johnson has had to contend for the title in a two-way fight, many times against one of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. This year despite a third driver being in close contention, he says it's still simple for him as he aims to put it all on the line in order to add a fifth title to his tally.
"It's still pretty simple because, yes, second is better than third, but I'd rather put it all on the line and risk second to take a shot a winning the championship," said Johnson. "Second or third, it is what it is. We're only going to fall so far.
"There's so much money for being second than third, but I'm so willing to take the risk of first. It's still really looking forward. I'm not really paying attention to what's behind."
Despite being crowned at Homestead for the past four years, the Florida track is the only one among those currently in the Chase for the Sprint Cup where Johnson has yet to win for the first time, a fifth place last year being his best finish at the track since 2006.
The Californian claims that having to defend his lead in the past has led to him focusing more on qualifying setups to start with and then on having a comfortable car for the race, even if not necessarily the fastest one. He plans to have a different approach this weekend, as he vows to close the season with his first Homestead win.
"Before, there was a lot of pressure for qualifying to help us get to the front and hopefully not be in harms way," said Johnson. "In race practice, we just looked for a comfortable car to drive in years past. This year we can't have that luxury. We need a car that's fast, that's going to run up front... We have to do everything right and then hope that [Hamlin] has a third-place day. It's hard to hit those two marks."
Even if Johnson wins Sunday's Ford 400, he would need to lead the most laps or Hamlin not to lead at all or finish third or worse in order to overcome the 15-point deficit to the Joe Gibbs racer in the driver standings.