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NASCAR’s Johnson bracing for Chase changes

Jimmie Johnson, who has won six NASCAR season titles, talks to the media Tuesday about expected changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which could be officially announced today by NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France. (Reuters)

Jimmie Johnson, who has won six NASCAR season titles, talks to the media Tuesday about expected changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which could be officially announced today by NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France. (Reuters)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The possible changes to the way NASCAR determines its Sprint Cup Series champion caught Jimmie Johnson off guard.

But that doesn’t mean the driver of the No. 48 isn’t ready to take on a new system — and prevail.

In today’s state of the sport address, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France is expected to announce sweeping modifications to the structure of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Based on conversations with key stakeholders, those changes could include an expansion of the Chase field from 12 to 16 drivers, establishment of race wins as the primary avenue to NASCAR’s playoff and a series of eliminations culminating in a winner-take-all showdown among four remaining drivers in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

With the possible exception of the final race, Johnson doesn’t expect much to change from the No. 48 team’s perspective, as he tries to win a record-tying seventh title.

“Up until Homestead, I don’t know that it’s way different,” Johnson said Tuesday afternoon during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “You change the odds by 16 cars being in. But in the postseason, you have to win, and the champion has always won races, and you’ve got to win a lot. And that’s how we’ve won our championships.

“I don’t think a lot changes there, but where there’s the most change, in my opinion, is one race, four cars. Homestead’s been a good track for us. We’ve run well when we’ve needed to; there’s been other years when we just needed to go down and protect. So it’s definitely going to change the way we race there.”

Crew chief Chad Knaus was guarded in his assessment, preferring to wait for the official announcement before offering an evaluation of the changes.

“I just don’t want to comment on too much until we know what the rules are,” Knaus said. “I just don’t know. It’s going to be tough. One race is tough, especially when you’re competing against 43 cars. We’ll just have to see.”

And contrary to what some have suggested facetiously, Knaus hasn’t started work on the No. 48 team’s 2014 Homestead chassis — but he chuckled at the suggestion.

“No, we’ll get that sorted out as we go,” he said. “We try to take things one race at a time and one set of goals at a time. Our goal is to get out there, and if it is getting in on wins, then obviously our goal is to try to get out there and win a race.

“Hopefully, we can do that, and if we can do that, then we’ll start to worry about solidifying the fact that we’re in the Chase solidly and then what we’ve got to do from there.”

Though Johnson has never been to Victory Lane at Homestead, both he and Knaus believe they can win there with the title on the line.

“I think last year we had a car capable of winning,” Knaus said. “The year before, we had the race won, if we hadn’t had a mechanical problem. So we’ve been plenty fast there.”

“I feel good about Homestead, and I love racing on the track,” Johnson said. “It’s a fun track to race on.”

Then Johnson allowed himself a parting quip.

“But the way things have been changing,” he said, “who knows if we’ll race at Homestead come season’s end.”

Asked whether he thought some of the expected changes might be directed at him, Johnson replied, “It’s crossed my mind — I’m not going to lie.”

Johnson said he had expected upcoming changes to be more procedural, such as the establishment of heat races and a main event inside a four-hour TV window.

“So when big change was coming, that’s where my mind-set was,” he acknowledged. “…But if (the expected changes are) the bullet that we need, then I’m for it.”

And if recent history is an indicator, he and Knaus will find a way to take advantage of it, too.