Sunday, August 15, 2004

Johnson's goal is for clean start


First turn at Watkins Glen has caused trouble in years past

By Dick Brinster
The Associated Press

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - Polesitter Jimmie Johnson's first hope is that he and teammate Jeff Gordon make it cleanly through the first turn today at Watkins Glen International.

It didn't work out that way last year in the Sirius at The Glen, when Gordon was spun out by Greg Biffle at the start of the race.

"We may joke with each other about it," Johnson said, referring to Gordon. "With the respect we have for one another and our desire to finish the race, I don't think there will be an issue."

They start on the front row as a result of the cancellation of qualifying for the race. The field was set on the basis of car-owner points.

Johnson holds a 97-point lead over Gordon in the Nextel Cup standings, so both have something to protect in the second of NASCAR's two annual road-course races. Johnson is seeking his first career victory on a serpentine layout while Gordon will try to extend to five his record for wins on this 2.45-mile track and his overall mark of nine on road courses.

It's difficult to downplay the importance of safely negotiating the first turn, a sharp right-hander at the end of a long, downhill straightaway. A miscalculation in position or braking can put a driver in the runoff trap.

"We'll try to leave each other a little room especially in the opening laps," Johnson said. "I definitely need to make it past the first corner before I race too hard."

Despite the front-row starting positions, both Gordon and Johnson must be aware of attempts by second-row starters Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 2002 Glen winner Tony Stewart to maintain their straightaway speeds longer, dive to the inside, brake later and steal the lead on the turn.

AILING EARNHARDT: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had two solid practice sessions Saturday but still limped and grimaced with every step he took afterward as he continues to recover from being burned in a sports car crash last month in California.

"I'm fine," said Earnhardt, who was seventh-quickest in the first practice and will start third today in the Sirius at The Glen.

If Junior needed a boost to forget his aches and pains, he certainly received one from a young visitor from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. When 3-year-old Connor Poling, who is recovering from heart surgery, sat down for a chat wearing a bright orange No. 8 hat, his favorite driver was beaming.

"Hello, partner. Feeling all right?" Earnhardt asked.

Connor's shyness dominated the 15-minute session - he kept his head bowed and held his hands over his eyes, finally relenting once for a photo before departing.

"Take it easy and have a good trip. See ya, buddy," Earnhardt said, prompting Connor to break out of his shell and give him a thumbs-up.

PETTY'S LAMENT: Kyle Petty, who has won eight Cup races, will make his 700th career start today in the Sirius at The Glen.

"I'd like to count backward from 700 to where I started and do it all again," said Petty, whose last victory came at Dover in 1995. "I think any time you run a lot of races, you never think about how many you're running. ... It's pretty cool to be in a sport where you can stick around this long."

Sirius at The Glen

Site: Watkins Glen, N.Y.

Schedule: Today, race (TNT, 2 p.m.).

Track: Watkins Glen International (permanent road course, 2.45 miles, 11 turns).

Race distance: 220.5 miles (90 laps).

Last race: Jeff Gordon won the Brickyard 400 to become the fourth driver to record four wins at Indianapolis Speedway, joining four-time Indy 500 winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears.

Last year: Robby Gordon stretched his fuel over the final 39 laps and completed a sweep of the 2003 road-course races with a victory at Watkins Glen.

Fast facts: Jeff Gordon has finished fifth or better in seven of his last eight races, including three wins. ... Last week Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished his first race since being burned in a sports car crash July 18, but he placed 27th after cutting a tire on the final lap. ... Jimmie Johnson has failed to finish three races this season.

Next race: GFS Marketplace 400, Aug.  22, Brooklyn, Mich.

Nextel Cup leaders (Through Aug. 8)

Points

1. Jimmie Johnson3,095
2. Jeff Gordon2,998
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.2,855
4. Tony Stewart2,761
5. Matt Kenseth2,738
6. Elliott Sadler2,674
7. Kurt Busch2,615
8. Bobby Labonte2,584
9. Kevin Harvick2,562
10. Ryan Newman2,542
Money

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. $4,723,430
2. Matt Kenseth $4,433,377
3. Jeff Gordon $4,370,715
4. Tony Stewart $4,296,600
5. Jimmie Johnson $3,608,934
6. Elliott Sadler $3,247,907
7. Ryan Newman $3,130,236
8. Kevin Harvick $3,093,507
9. Kasey Kahne $3,037,167
10. Dale Jarrett $2,947,144




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