Times wiresFORT WORTH, Texas
Jimmie Johnson arrived at Texas last fall with a huge lead and a bunch of different favorable scenarios for winning another Sprint Cup title. Not even a third-lap crash derailed his championship effort. Johnson is back at the 1½-mile high-banked track again in the lead with three races left. Except this time he can't afford more Texas trouble. Johnson barely leads the Sprint Cup's closest three-way Chase for the Championship to date, with only 38 points separating him, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.
While there is no margin for error — or big wrecks — like in the past, Johnson insists he feels no extra pressure.
"It is really easy what I need to do. I need to win the race, I need to finish ahead of the (No.) 11 (Hamlin) and the (No.) 29 (Harvick), and I think that's going to mean winning the race," Johnson said Friday.
Johnson finished 38th after last year's early crash and had his points lead slashed from 184 to 73 with two races left. He recovered and went on to his fourth consecutive championship.
"Previous Chases when I had a big points lead and (Texas) has a fat lady singing over on the balcony, and nobody wants to believe me to say, 'Hey this thing isn't over.' You have got to run the race, got to play the game," Johnson said. "… But until you go out there and take the checkered flag, nothing's guaranteed."
Nobody's arguing with Johnson now.
Hamlin has a Cup-high seven wins in 2010, including at Texas in April, when he held off Johnson.
"It's fun, trust me," Hamlin said. "For the race fan in me, I'm excited to see what happens the next three weeks between three drivers."
Hamlin has finished outside the top 10 only once in this Chase and trails Johnson by 14 points, with Harvick another 24 back. Harvick has three top-three finishes the past five races.
In April, Johnson just escaped a late crash that took nine cars out and set up Hamlin's final push. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart made contact while going three-wide with Johnson, who was inside and escaped without being hit.
Gordon said everything is fine between him and Johnson, his protege and Hendrick Motorsports teammate, but don't expect him just to let Johnson race by him Sunday.
"If it's leading one lap, that's one thing," said Gordon, fourth in the standings but out of the running, 207 points behind Johnson. "But if we've got a car that's capable of going out there and dominating the race and winning the race, then we're going to go out there and we're going to do that."