“There are systems that are in place that lead you to a playoff berth and get you in the Chase, and then your systems keep you competitive in the Chase,” he said. “There has been more pressure and I’m sure everybody is focused; thinking about things a little bit more. But what we do is what we do, and that’s what led us to where we are in the points.
“We’re not going to change anything there.”
Asked to compare himself to main title contender Matt Kenseth, Johnson said the Wisconsin native is “much more mechanically inclined on the race car and understands the particulars of the chassis and the vehicle.
“My fifth year ever in a stock car was at the Cup level,” said Johnson. “I had two years of ASA, two years in Nationwide and then Cup, so I was pretty far behind. I remember being in Milwaukee with Howie Lettow as my crew chief, just trying to understand what to do. I didn’t know what wedge was. Matt is much stronger in that area. I’m probably more on the psychological side; making sure that I’m buttoned up, trying to create a good energy through the team, keep the guys `up’ and things like that.
“I feel like we are both big picture thinkers,” he added. “Inside the race car -- understanding the flow of a race, the flow of the Chase, the flow of a year -- there is a broader vision. Being patient in the car at different times… again (being) more of a big picture thinker and knowing how to work through issues and come out of the race with your best possible finish.
“Look at Matt over the years,” he said. “Qualifying hasn’t been Matt’s strongest suit, but regardless of where he starts, when that checkered falls he is there. There is a different kind of mindset and I feel (We are) very much in the same line of thought. We also find a way to be there at the end of the race.”
While Johnson has a better track record at Phoenix International Raceway, the same was true two weeks ago at Martinsville, where Kenseth ultimately outperformed the Lowe’s Chevrolet driver en route to a runner-up finish.
“I don’t know if the numbers mean much, especially in championship battles,” said Johnson. “Here (at PIR), we’ve had some good success. But I can’t rely on that. It’s all in the past. They’re great stats, they’re a great reference, but the past is the past and it’s all about this weekend. Now that (Matt’s) in the No. 20 car, you can‘t look at stats from the No. 17. There has been quite a big improvement on a lot of race tracks for him.”
Johnson also said that he and Kenseth will likely keep a close eye on each other in practice today, as they have throughout the Chase.
“In practice this year, Matt and I have been out there really evaluating ourselves against one another to see what the other has. It’s not uncommon,” he said. “I’m sure that’s what he’s doing and if (you) can overtake… there’s always a little message in that.
“We’ve been sizing each other up pretty good each week,” he admitted. “We roll out right near each other in practice each time. In Texas, I was catching him and he let me by and got up behind to take a look at my stuff. I don’t think is all that uncommon to size yourself up (against the competition).”
He said track position will likely play a major role in the outcome of Sunday’s race.
“We haven’t been able to work-in a second lane around here and create passing opportunities,” he explained. “That means strategy on pit road and the pit stops themselves are where the weight really lies. Making sure your car is good on older tires is going to be important as practice develops, and you’re not going to want to be on pit road very long on Sunday.”
After squandering a seven-point advantage in the final two races of last season, Johnson said he and his team have learned from experience.
“We’re in a very familiar spot to last year,” he said. “We got to this point last year, had an issue at this race track and then made mistakes at Homestead. That’s an area that we need to clean up and not repeat. (We need to) make sure that we’re focused on doing a great job here, and on into Homestead.”
Asked about last year’s Phoenix race, when a blown tire relegated him to a poor finish, Johnson said he learned another valuable lesson.
“We worked real hard to play catch up (to Brad Keselowski) through the course of the weekend. We had a tire failure (because) we overworked the tire. We created an issue ourselves (because) we were lacking some speed. The No. 2 had us covered the entire time here, and I look back on it and think ‘Man, if I would have preserved my tires a little bit more and didn’t overwork my equipment… we would go to Homestead with a much smaller deficit.’
“That is the lesson I take from last year’s race here. We love to race hard, that is what we are here to do. Racing is what I’m good at. I’m not the best at putting up the fastest lap, the best at qualifying or the best at topping the speed charts in practice. But look who passes cars on the race track.
“I’m good at racing. That is my sweet spot.”