If being in a points battle seems old hat to Jimmie Johnson, it's because, well, it is.
Every year but one in the Chase era, the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has been in the thick of contention. And that again is true this season, as Johnson enters this weekend's NASCAR race at Martinsville Speedway a scant seven points behind leader Brad Keselowski.
So if there is a driver who would appear to be immune to feeling the pressure that goes along with competing for a title, it would be Johnson. But that's not the case according to him, as every driver still in contention is feeling the pressure to some degree – some though, more than others.
"The points leader I think has the most pressure," Johnson said Friday at Martinsville. "I like being in that position because you're still in control. When you're leading the points it's in your hands, but with that control comes pressure – especially later in the season and in the Chase. During different parts of the season it is an honor to lead the points – that honor is still there right now. But that light at the end of the tunnel is becoming much more vivid and the pressure is starting to set in."
Johnson is hoping to add to the pressure Keselowski is experiencing by doing what he does best at Martinsville: Run up front, lead laps and win – something he's done six times in his career. And that's in stark contrast to Keselowski, who has yet to finish better than ninth in five starts on the half-mile oval that resembles a giant paperclip.
"Coming here, the way we're sitting in points, I would hope to get a handful of points on the No. 2 (Keselowski) car," Johnson said. "And at the same time, Denny (Hamlin), I got a few points on him last week so if I gave up a few it wouldn't be that big of a deal. And I really think going down the stretch, it's going to be a game of a few points at a time. That's just the way my mindset is.
"But I'm focused on it this week a little bit and if I lose a little to the No. 11 (Hamlin), it's not what I want but I got a few last week; and if I'm able to get some on the No. 2, then we did what we should here."
What Johnson is hoping to avoid is a replay of last Sunday in Kansas, when he had a fast car, but became too aggressive in traffic and ended up wrecking. Miraculously, though, his team was able to fix the damage and the 48 team was able to salvage a ninth-place finish.
Despite the lapse, Johnson says he has no plans to start being more conservative behind the wheel. With the competition as close as it is, being tentative could ultimately prove to be just as costly as he pursues his sixth series title.
"Everybody makes mistakes and I would rather side on the aggressive side because I know what my competition is," Johnson said. "I know the 2 car is certainly racing that way and Denny is as well. You've got to stay aggressive. You can't protect and you can't conserve at this stage. It's all about living on that ragged edge."
However, unlike Keselowski or Hamlin, the one thing Johnson has failed to do so far in the Chase is visit Victory Lane, and that is something he feels he needs to change if he is to win yet another championship.
"I feel like at all four tracks remaining, we're one of the favorites to win," he said. "I feel like you have to win and you have to win during the Chase to be the champion. It certainly can be won without, but my mindset right now is win, win, win."