HAMPTON - A year ago, the pressure was almost unbearable for Jimmie Johnson as he prepared for the fall race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
This time is different.
'I'm in a much better place and I'm actually enjoying this year and this championship battle,' said Johnson, who is second in the standings, 53 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, heading into today's Pep Boys Auto 500.
Johnson flirted with a championship in each of his first four seasons in NASCAR's Nextel Cup series, never finishing worse than fifth and twice winding up second - once by just eight points.
Heading into this race last year - the sixth of 10 events in the Chase for the championship - Johnson was second again, trailing Matt Kenseth by 26 points and living with the distinct possibility of falling short once more.
He persevered, though, winning the title and removing the massive weight of unfulfilled expectations from his shoulders.
Johnson said the breakthrough has made him a more confident driver.
'I feel that you can try too hard, and I've tried too hard in the past to win races, to win poles and even to win championships,' he said. 'And, this year, I feel a lot like after my first win, that coming back for the second win it's a little bit more of a clear picture that you're looking at instead of just red in the eyes and intense and trying to do whatever it takes to get it.'
Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, can see the difference in his friend.
'Jimmie is much more relaxed and focused,' said Gordon, whose team works out of the same race shop as Johnson's. 'He understands now what it takes to win a championship, and he knows now that he and his team can get it done. That makes him even tougher to beat.'
'I've been there (and) I feel like I know where to focus,' he said. 'I know how to let some things roll off my back that would stress me out or worry me from track to track - as you lose points or gain points, the pressure that's either positive or negative that comes with it.'
In some ways, the pressure has shifted to Gordon, who hasn't won a championship since 2001, which also means he hasn't finished on top under the current Chase format, which began in 2004.
Gordon was dominant during the 'regular season,' this year, building a lead of 312 points over runner-up Johnson after the first 26 races. But, thanks to NASCAR's new seeding format, based on wins, that lead was erased and Johnson started the Chase leading Gordon by 20 points.
'If we were still racing under the old system, Jeff would probably be running away with it,' Johnson said. 'But, this is the way they're doing it now and it gives us a real chance for another championship.'
This year's Chase has boiled down to a three-man race, with surprising Clint Bowyer, in only his second full season in Cup, just 115 points behind Gordon. Two-time series champion Tony Stewart is fourth, a daunting 249 points behind and probably out of contention.
'If the top three guys don't have major problems, then it is a three-man race,' Gordon said. 'I don't think that fourth on back can just outperform the guys on the racetrack and pull if off. I think that one of the three, or all three of the guys, are going to have to have some kind of problem for it to be more than a three-man race.'
Johnson and Gordon both have similar records at Atlanta and the other three tracks remaining on the schedule. But Gordon is trying not to look over his shoulder at Johnson or any of his other pursuers.
'The type of year we are having, the type of cars we have this year, if we do our jobs well, then we are going to be one of the cars to beat (every race),' Gordon said. 'You can't base that off of anybody but what your own car is doing and what you are trying to do to make it go fast. That has been working pretty good for us.'
Johnson isn't worried, either.
'This has been a lot of fun for me,' the reigning champion said. '(Winning the title) hasn't taken anything away from the intensity or the desire to win the championship, but I'm having a good time doing this.'