In truth, Johnson said, a driver cannot appreciate the vise that will gradually squeeze emotions between Friday and Sunday until he has experienced that.
Last year, the only one in the last seven in which he has not commanded center stage in the Cup end game, he amusingly recalled the tension that consumed him that 2006 Sunday here before he secured his first championship.
Family and friends avoided him like he was radioactive the morning of the race. “They could tell I was so nervous they wouldn’t even make eye contact with me,” he chuckled.
Thursday’s press briefings begin the process and change the dynamic, he said. “And this is just the start of it.”
The Cup drivers will roll onto the 1.5-mile oval for a 90-minute practice in a crammed schedule on Friday at 1:30 p.m. Qualifying to set the 43-car starting lineup will begin at 6:10 p.m.
Not only are there daily demands on their time off the track, he added, chuckling. “Every camera in Florida will be on us every practice session. We’ve got to walk to and from the transporter [to the garage stall]: ‘What are their moods? What are they thinking? How it’s going? I heard this on the radio.’ All that just ramps up.”
But Johnson has been there, done that. Keselowski hasn’t.
In terms of the race itself, it didn’t come off as blind optimism when Johnson emphasized, “A 15th-place finish is not a layup.” And regardless of how experienced a contender is, “At some point, the magnitude of [a championship battle] hits you. It infects everybody.
“It’s easy to focus on the driver,” Johnson continued. “But every crew member who goes over the wall to perform that pit stop can have that moment, and will have that moment,’’ the sudden realization of how much is at stake. “Every guy who turns a screw, a nut, a bolt, who fuels the car…”
In summary, this isn’t over yet. There’s a race to be run.