Jimmie Johnson plans to attack in the three remaining races of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, as he targets a fifth consecutive title.
The reigning champion heads to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend with a slim 14-point cushion over Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin, while Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick trails him by 38 points.
Last year Johnson arrived at this race 184 points ahead of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin, but ended up getting involved in an incident early on, leaving Texas with only a 73-point gap over the veteran, which in the end proved enough for Johnson to go on to claim his fourth consecutive title.
Johnson believes he approached last year's race in a defensive mode due to his healthy lead in the standings, but with this year's gap to his closest rivals being so small – and their performances providing a strong challenge – he says he needs to beat them for the next three weeks in order to remain in the lead of the championship. He reckons the tight battle at the top of the standings does not increase the pressure on him and claims to be more relaxed not having to protect a points cushion this time.
"I don't necessarily feel more pressure," said Johnson. "I think I feel more pressure trying to defend something. The small margin that we have, it's really easy to know what I need to do – I need to win the race. I need to finish ahead of the 11 [Hamlin] and the 29 [Harvick] and I think that's going to mean me winning the race.
"The week has been really easy for me, where other weeks coming into Texas concerned the mind in more of a defensive mode trying to protect and worrying about things. It's all offense right now, so I feel really good about things and feel less pressure for this Texas race than I did last year."
Johnson has five career wins in two of the three upcoming races, with Homestead being the only one where he has yet to win among circuits in the Chase. The Hendrick driver believes the past few seasons have prepared him and his team for what he expects to be a tough battle to the wire against both Hamlin and Harvick, who are enjoying their best shots at the Sprint Cup title ever.
"Texas and Phoenix have been really good tracks for us and we've always raced at those racetracks," said Johnson. "Then at Homestead we've been a little more conservative. I don't think we'll have that luxury this year at all. I feel like over the years we've prepared for this situation and the way we operate as a team, we never want to leave any points on the table – I think we're geared up and ready for the final three and can race for it. It is making things simple.
"I have to expect the best out of the 29 and the 11 and the way they've been running and average finishes and the finishes they have at the final three tracks – I have to go out and win races. It's real simple and almost comforting in a way. It's real easy to know what we need to do and there's nothing to protect."
The 35-year-old has praised both of his rivals as being respectful on the track, although he believes Hamlin is not as aggressive as Harvick, who Johnson claims is not as patient while racing side by side.
"In racing situations, I would say both are very respectful in the give and take of the race," said Johnson. "When push comes to shove at times, I think the tolerance that some people have is a little different. I would consider Denny maybe more patient in some situations than Kevin. I would put myself more on the patient side as well.
"With Kevin, I probably need to give up the spot a little earlier than someone else... I've had great races with both of them."
The 38-point gap that splits Johnson from third-placed Harvick in the standings is the closest ever for the top three championship contenders since the Chase format was introduced in 2004.