Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Preparing for next step

Johnson makes serious bid for Nextel Cup title

By Dan Gelston
The Associated Press

LONG POND, Pa. - Jimmie Johnson likes his chances for his first career Nextel Cup championship.

He has been one of the most dominant drivers this year - three wins, including Sunday's victory at Pocono Raceway - and will end the season on tracks where he has had some of his best finishes. Not even a mistake that dropped him back in the field Sunday could slow him down for long.

Johnson just may be the driver to beat when the points title race heats up at the 27th race, Sept. 19 at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Following the 26th race of the season, the top 10 drivers plus any within 400 points of the leader will be broken out for a 10-race showdown called "Chase for the Championship."

"I feel that based on our races this year at those tracks and what we did last year, we should be one of the teams competing for a championship," said Johnson, who races for Hendricks Motorsports.

"It's something on the forefront of all of our minds."

Johnson trails leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 58 points. Earnhardt won't be easy to beat - he's won three races and finished sixth at Pocono - but Johnson has seemingly been the car to watch every week.

"We're real lucky to come out of here leading the points," Earnhardt said. "Every Hendrick car out there was a half-second faster than anybody else. They really got their cars figured out. We've got to figure out our own and get there with them."

Johnson's win Sunday was his second in three weeks, his third this year and ninth of his career.

He also has two second-place finishes in his last five starts and has led 820 miles in the last three races.

Johnson had one of the most dominating performances ever in the Coca-Cola 600 when he led 334 laps and lost the top spot only during pit stops.

"I have 100 percent confidence in my car, my team, my abilities," Johnson said. "That all plays off one another and allows us to bounce back even if we have a bad week."

There have been few bad weeks for his No. 48 Chevrolet. He finished 32nd two races ago at Dover, Del., but almost all the leaders were wiped out during a pileup and a caution-plagued race.

NASCAR changed its caution rules because of the fiasco, starting with the Pocono 500.

A mix-up by the flagman over the rules cost Johnson his lead at Pocono. The pit road official opened the service lane one lap early during a late caution period. Johnson was unable to pit while most of the cars behind him did. He had to pit later and it cost him the front spot on the restart.

Instead of penalizing the violators, NASCAR let the field stand. Johnson was leading, but plummeted over 20 spots before racing his way back to the front, helped out by several late cautions.

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus said they never received an explanation, though NASCAR president Mike Helton apologized for the error after the race.

Johnson compared arguing with NASCAR to arguing with a parent.

"What are you going to do? Fight mom?" he said. "There's no way you're going to win that battle. At a certain point you just have to take it on the chin and get back to work."

He gets back to work Friday at Michigan, where he finished 16th last year. This year, he has another return trip to Pocono Raceway, and stops in Darlington and Charlotte where he's won already.

There's also a race at New Hampshire where he won last year.

The communication and chemistry between Johnson and Knaus has been perfect all year, and Knaus credits Hendrick Motorsports and their sponsors for doing what's needed to win.

"They allow us to go to them and say, 'This is what we need,'" Knaus said. "That's something a lot of teams don't get. If we don't put the pieces together, it's our fault."

Now they're hoping to pieces come together to form a championship.

Kenseth, Harvick verdict

(AP) - Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick were penalized for bumping each other at the end of the Pocono 500.

With Sunday's race about to end under caution, Harvick spun Kenseth into the infield in Turn 3 on Lap 197. Kenseth then did the same to Harvick on the backstretch on the next lap.

Both Kenseth, the 2003 series champion, and Harvick were interviewed after the race by NASCAR officials, who then dropped them to 20th and 21st. Harvick originally finished 11th, and Kenseth had finished 10th.

More penalties could be coming later this week, NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

"It boils down to a frustration level between the 17 (Kenseth) and the 29 (Harvick) that got played out on the racetrack, under caution, and that's something we frown on ... greatly," Helton said.

Kenseth would not comment, but Harvick said: "I don't know what his deal is. I raced him clean and cleared him and he got up underneath me and tore my back bumper.

"Then under caution, he brake-checked me and spun himself out. I don't know why he decided to try and wreck me. He needs to check his ego because it's getting too big."

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