Reporting from Avondale, Ariz. — If Jimmie Johnson does not win a fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship this year, a setback more than a few people are rooting for, Johnson himself is prepared to face it.
"I'm just in a better space mentally this year," Johnson said in an interview. "Maybe I need to be worried and freaked out. But after going through the fire [of prior title battles] I'm a little wiser and a little smarter."
After a record four consecutive titles in stock-car racing's premier series, Johnson is 33 points behind Denny Hamlin with two races left in NASCAR's 10-race Chase for Cup playoff — Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway and the finale next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.
Johnson still has a strong shot at winning a fifth championship; the Hendrick Motorsports driver could erase a 33-point deficit and then some at Phoenix, setting up a shootout with Hamlin — along with Kevin Harvick, who's 59 points behind Hamlin — at Homestead-Miami.
"It doesn't look that way right now, but I still feel like Jimmie and those guys are still the guys to beat … based on how they've performed in really high-pressure situations over the last half decade," said Carl Edwards, who's fourth in the Chase but 317 points behind Hamlin.
But if this year's title does elude him, Johnson still owns a remarkable record in sports, a streak of excellence that puts him in company that includes Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Formula One racing's Michael Schumacher.
Johnson, an El Cajon native who cut his teeth in off-road racing, has benefited from an exceptional confluence of factors over the last few years: His deft driving ability, the stout No. 48 Chevrolet cars built by Hendrick and the intense, brainy skill of crew chief Chad Knaus.
Yet, a good number of NASCAR watchers would prefer that Johnson's streak end at four. They contend that Johnson's achievement, while admirable, is helping crimp NASCAR's popularity because his championship ways have given the sport an air of predictability. Johnson's clean-cut persona only exacerbates the problem in their eyes.
"Sorry, Jimmie, but NASCAR needs a new Sprint Cup champion," Jeff Owens of the racing website SceneDaily.com wrote this month. The streak, he said, "needs to end. Now. For the sake of the sport."
Mike Smith of the Las Vegas Sun agreed, writing recently that "I'm tired of watching the Jimmie Johnson movie."
The outspoken Harvick even chimed in while seated next to Johnson at a recent post-race news conference. "No offense to him, but somebody else needs to win" the championship, Harvick said.
Johnson, who has heard all this before, said the remark didn't hurt his feelings.
"I understand it from the mass point of view," Johnson said. "[No.] 48 fans are loving it, but there are 42 other cars on the track. I get it. I'm outnumbered in a sense."
Hamlin, meanwhile, has blossomed into a bona fide title contender in the No. 11 Toyota prepared by Joe Gibbs Racing, with a series-high eight wins this season. That's the same number of victories he earned in his previous four years combined on the Cup circuit, and it came after he had knee surgery last spring.
A Virginian who used to fret excessively during races about any problems with his car, Hamlin now is more confident in his ability to rally even when his car isn't perfect. It's an asset Johnson also developed.
"I'm more excited for the possibilities than I am nervous that we'll end up faltering and not winning" the title, said Hamlin, who has never won at Phoenix. Johnson holds the track record with four victories and Harvick is a two-time winner in the desert.
Johnson once worried about most everything, too, largely because he narrowly missed winning the title in 2004 and 2005 before his championship streak began.
"I personally don't need the roller-coaster ride," he said. "I'm just staying in my own little world."
And even if the streak ends at four, "What we've accomplished, this stuff just doesn't happen," Johnson said. "When people look back they'll say, 'Wow, they really did something special.' "