Friday, October 14, 2005
Johnson will have to tiptoe through field
CONCORD, N.C. -- If Jimmie Johnson is going to win his
fourth consecutive race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, he'll have to
Johnson changed the engine in his Chevrolet, a move that
forfeited his third-place starting spot. He'll now have to start at
the back of the pack for Saturday night's race and work his way to
the front as he pursues yet another Charlotte victory. Johnson has
won four of past five races at Lowe's, including three straight.
Since a 39th-place finish in his 2001 Cup debut here, Johnson
has not finished lower than seventh.
"I've been waiting for our success to slow down at Charlotte," Johnson said. "There is really only one direction for us to go and
that's not winning. If that happens, so be it. But I really feel
comfortable and confident about our chances."
Several things are already working against Johnson, beginning
with his motor blowing during one of Thursday's practice sessions.
It made qualifying irrelevant because replacing the engine
automatically earned him a spot at the rear of the 43-car field.
He can't afford to stay back there long -- the racing at the rear
of the field is usually pretty dicey and the majority of accidents
occur from the middle of the pack on back. So Johnson will be in a
hurry to get himself away from danger.
"It's not a good thing to come from the back," he said.
"There are a lot of risks I'll have to take to get to the front. I
have to be on my toes at the start of the race."
Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team will also have to
overcome their own perceptions about the capability of their car.
Because of changes president Humpy Wheeler made to the track
surface, crew chief Chad Knaus decided against bringing the same
Chevrolet Johnson drove to a win here in May.
They instead used the car Johnson drove to a fifth-place finish
at Dover, Del., three races ago. The decision is a gamble because the
other car had proved to be stout at Charlotte and gave the team a
psychological belief that it could not be beaten here.
"With all the races we've won, we thought [the car] was a huge
part of it," Johnson said. "When we made the decision not to
bring it, we've been telling ourselves it's not a big deal and this
car is better."
Elliott Sadler will start from the pole and Ryan Newman, who is
second in the Chase for the championship standings, is second. In
all, six drivers eligible for the Nextel Cup title qualified in the
So far, it's shaping up to be Tony Stewart's title to lose.
After the first four rounds of the Chase, Stewart has yet to have a
horrible run and takes a 75-point lead over Newman into Saturday
Johnson, meanwhile, is mired back in fifth -- 92 points out. But
he's been in this position before. In fact, everyone believed
Johnson's championship hopes were over at this time last season.
Instead, he won this event to start a string a four victories in
five races to claw his way back into contention. He went into the
season finale as the top contender to leader Kurt Busch for the
championship, but fell eight points short in the closest title race
in NASCAR history.
Because of his history, Johnson isn't ready to hand the title
over to Stewart just yet. He's confident the championship won't be
decided until the Nov. 20 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"It's just going to be a fight all the way to Homestead once
again," he said. "In my eyes, I still feel there's a lot of
racing left and a lot of things can happen every race. It's about
finishing in the top five, top 10 and not having really bad days.
"Hopefully we can do that and we'll just see how everybody
else's life goes. With two or three to go, we'll evaluate where we
are then and a little bit more then and take it from there."
Stewart, who starts fourth on Saturday night, said it won't
matter to him if he wraps up the title before the Chase is over or
has to go all the way to the finale to claim it -- so long as he
wins his second Cup championship.
"I don't care how it gets done, I don't care if we win it by
one point as long as we get it done," Stewart said. "Nobody will
remember 10 or 20 years down the line how much we won it by. I'm
not letting the points sheet monopolize my week."