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Jimmie Johnson says he has to win at Charlotte

TDN

Birmingham, Ala. — Jimmie Johnson is treating Charlotte as a must-win race.

The alternative for the six-time Sprint Cup Series champion is leaving it all up to the chaotic, utterly unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway where a driver's fate can careen out of his hands in an instant.

"I'm not in the position I want to be in," Johnson, who won the title last year, said Wednesday during a promotional appearance at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. "I hate not being in control of my own destiny. The race in Kansas went about as bad as it could. We need to turn things around in Charlotte so we don't show up to our most treacherous racetrack needing a win."

Johnson is last in the 12-driver field, with four getting knocked out after next weekend's Talladega race. The only way to control his own fate is to pick up his second straight win at Charlotte, securing himself an automatic berth into the next round. Joey Logano claimed a spot by winning at Kansas, where Johnson didn't help his own case.

He was involved in an early accident and finished 40th, his worst Chase finish since the 2005 season finale.

"The first part of the week, we struggled with qualifying," Johnson said. "Everything on Saturday in race trim, we did much better with the race car, had a competitive car. It was just mired in traffic and on that one restart the 16 car (Greg Biffle) just came up and hit me and spun me around. The 11 car (Denny Hamlin) and I were dancing and I think he finished somewhere in the Top 10, near the Top 5, and I think we could have ended up right there with them but we just got crashed before we had a chance to get there."

Hamlin finished seventh.

There are worse tracks for Johnson to head to in such a precarious position than Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he won for a record seventh time in May's Coca-Cola 600.

He's won twice at Talladega, for that matter.

The huge superspeedway and its ever-present threat of race-altering crashes can work for you or against you. Johnson knows he could advance based on points with a strong performance.

"But I really feel like I have to go to Charlotte and win the race to control my own destiny," he said.

Johnson is seeking a record-tying seventh series title, which would place him alongside Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

Johnson feels this is the most highly pressurized situation he's been in since Homestead in 2012, where he and Brad Keselowski (Rochester Hills) were going head to head for the title. A mechanical problem ended Johnson's chances.

Johnson's Hendrix Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. is only one spot ahead of him, while Keselowski is 10th and another teammate, Kasey Kahne, stands ninth.

Johnson knows he'd be hypocritical to criticize the old championship format in which he had dominated the series. He won five consecutive championships from 2006 through 2010 and added No. 6 last season.

The new 16-driver elimination system whittles down to four eligible drivers racing in a winner-take-all finale.

Johnson can't argue with the drama it has generated going into the next two races in a situation that's not too different from the drama that college football's four-team playoff could generate late in the season.

"I think it's going to take things to the next level," Johnson said. "It's going to be very important for a handful of guys in Charlotte to have a good race, including myself. Then you roll into Talladega and who knows what environment we'll have to deal with there.

"But by NASCAR's design, this is what they wanted. They wanted multiple story lines, they wanted to create drama. And boy, do we have it on an epic level right now."

Hornish back to Sprint Cup

After waiting years with more patience than he ever thought he would need, Sam Hornish Jr. is getting a second shot at a full-time ride in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

The three-time IndyCar Series champion has signed a multi-year deal with Richard Petty Motorsports to drive the No. 9 Ford starting in 2015. Hornish is back in the game with something to prove after a few seasons toiling in the Nationwide Series.

"I'd taken quite a few lumps," Hornish said Wednesday. "I always saw that there was light at the end of the tunnel, but sometimes you don't know if that's a train or not, you know?"

Turned out it was Richard Petty with an open seat Hornish could not refuse.

Hornish, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 champion, last completed a full Cup season in 2010 driving for Roger Penske. He drove three full seasons for Penske (2008-10) but made just one start each in 2011, 2013 and 2014 seasons. He made 20 starts for Penske in 2012, part of a lackluster first attempt at a regular NASCAR career. He is winless with only three top-fives in 131 career Cup starts and never finished higher than 28th in the standings.

Better Half Challenge

The wives and girlfriends of NASCAR drivers, crew members and team owners will get behind the wheel Thursday night in a 25-lap charity race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It's dubbed the Better Half Challenge, and it will precede the pole night activities at the track.

The women will be driving the legend cars that are a feature at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the weekly Tuesday night summer programs. Part of the prize money goes to Motor Racing Outreach and to the Speedway Children's Charities.

The defending champion in the race, which is set for 5 p.m., is Ashley Deihl Stremme, wife of driver David Stremme. Perhaps the best-known competitor Thursday night will be Amy Reimann, girlfriend of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I'm about as green as it gets, so I need a little bit of practice," Reimann said this week. "Dale talked me into it."

She said Kelly Earnhardt Miller, Dale Jr.'s sister, asked her to drive.

"I didn't really know what the Better Half Challenge was, to be honest," she said. "I mentioned it to Dale, and he said, 'Yeah, you've got to do it. You've got to do it.' "

Sprint Cup

Bank of America 500

Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles), Concord, N.C.

Schedule: Thursday, practice, qualifying (ESPN2, 7-8:30 p.m.); Friday, practice (ESPN2, 3-4 p.m., 5:30-7 p.m.); Saturday, race, 8 p.m. (ABC, 7-11:30 p.m.)

Distance: 501 miles (334 laps)

Last year: Brad Keselowski (Rochester Hills) raced to his lone 2013 victory.

Nationwide

300 Miles of Courage

Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles), Concord, N.C.

Schedule: Thursday, practice (ESPN2, 5:30-7 p.m.); Friday, qualifying, race, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2, 7-10:30 p.m.)

Distance: 300 miles (200 laps)

Last year: Kyle Busch completed a season sweep at the track, racing to the 11th of his 12 2013 series victories.

Formula One

Russian Grand Prix

Track: Sochi (Russia) Autodrom (road course, 3.637 miles)

Schedule: Friday, practice (NBC Sports Network, 6-7:30 a.m.), Saturday, practice, qualifying (NBC Sports Network, 7-8:30 a.m.); Sunday, race, 7 a.m. (NBC Sports Network, 6:30-9:30 a.m., 1:30-4:30 p.m.)

Distance: 192.75 miles (53 laps)