FORT 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 any more Texas trouble. Johnson is barely in front in the closest three-way Chase for the Sprint Cup 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 11 [Hamlin] and the 29 [Harvick], and I think that's going to mean winning the race," Johnson said Friday.
"Other weeks coming into Texas concerned the mind in more of a defensive mode trying to protect and worrying about things," he said. "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 qualified 17th for the 501-mile race Sunday, ahead of both Harvick (26th) and Hamlin (30th).
So confident that the Chase was already over at this point last fall, Texas Motor Speedway president and showman Eddie Gossage had a fat lady ready to sing at the end of the race.
And she did, even after Johnson spent more than 100 laps in the garage for repairs for the early crash and finished 38th. His points lead was slashed from 184 to 73 with two races left, though he went on to handily claim 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. "It may seem predictable, the stats may show something. But until you go out there and take the checkered flag, nothing's guaranteed."
Nobody is arguing with Johnson this season.
Hamlin has won a Cup-high seven races this season, including at Texas in April, when he held off Johnson at the end. That was when Hamlin was still hampered after surgery to repair the torn ACL in his left knee.
"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 since the Chase began and trails Johnson by 14 points, with Harvick another 24 points back.
"To me, this is the battle of three guys who have dominated the regular season, they've dominated the postseason and they have three races to figure out who's going to me the one on top," Hamlin said. "For me, as a fan, that's what makes me most excited about it. You have the three best guys all year long battling for the championship."
Harvick has three top-three finishes the past five races, a stretch when his worst finish was eighth. He hasn't been lower than fifth in the Cup standings all season.
Kurt Busch is the defending fall race champion at Texas, driving to Victory Lane last November after young brother Kyle Busch ran out of fuel with 2½ laps left while trying to complete an unprecedented NASCAR trifecta of winning three series races on the same weekend.
While Johnson finished second at Texas in April, he just escaped a late crash that took nine cars out of the race and set up Hamlin's final sprint to the front.
Hendrick teammates Gordon and Johnson had already had some scraps together before that and both had made it clear then they weren't happy about it. They are good friends and fierce competitors.
Gordon said everything is fine between them, but don't expect him to just let Johnson race by him this weekend for points in the championship.
"If it's leading one lap, that's one thing," Gordon said. "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."
Gordon is fourth in the standings, 207 points behind Johnson.
While Johnson certainly knows plenty about his teammate, and knows how hard Hamlin and Harvick will race on the track, Johnson isn't planning to put together any extensive scouting reports on his closest chasers.
"If I look at the past, I can find things that give me confidence in my records. And in my opponents' records, I can find things that will freak me out, so I'm not even going down that road," Johnson said. `There's just no need for it. Live in the now and do everything I can do today."