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Archive for Thursday, October 26, 2006

Johnson threatening after slow Chase start

October 26, 2006

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Jimmie Johnson said after winning the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway that his team has adopted a very simple motto as it moves forward through this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup.

Given NASCAR's penalty precedents, however, it's not one he's prepared to repeat around microphones.

"A lot of stuff happens in racing," Johnson said. "We are just showing up and racing at this point. Where it finishes up, it finishes up."

The first six races of this year's Chase have certainly seen plenty of "stuff" happening, and the race Johnson won after holding off Denny Hamlin on Sunday continued that trend.

Jeff Burton's early engine problem took out the driver who'd been the points leader since Week 2 of the Chase and opened the door to let eight drivers move back into the main pack in the fight for this year's championship.

When he left Kansas Speedway after finishing 14th in a car that had led 105 laps, Johnson was 165 points behind Burton.

He would have erased much of that at Talladega, Ala., if he hadn't been wrecked on the final lap by Brian Vickers, but "if" is becoming the theme of this year's Chase. Johnson then finished second at Lowe's Motor Speedway and won at Martinsville. When Burton's luck went sour Sunday, the points apple cart got kicked over.

Johnson, 146 points back in seventh at the green flag, is now in third place, 41 points behind Matt Kenseth and five points behind Kevin Harvick. Hamlin trails Kenseth by 47 points, and Burton is 48 back. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (94 points back), Mark Martin (96) and Kasey Kahne (99) are still in it. The way things are going, who can really count out Jeff Gordon, 141 points behind, and Kyle Busch, 171 back?

Johnson won four races in a five-week stretch, including a Martinsville victory, in 2004 to rally from a big Chase hole. He entered the final race at Homestead, Fla., with a chance to catch Kurt Busch but fell eight points short. Last year, he was second to Tony Stewart going to Homestead, but problems in that race dropped him to fifth in the final standings.

"We have been in the hunt for championships every year since this team has been around," Johnson said. "Sooner or later, we are going to get one."

This year's Chase didn't start well for Johnson - he finished 39th in the opener at New Hampshire - and he was frustrated with finishes at Kansas and Talladega, where the No. 48 Chevrolet was strong enough to win.

But, as the saying goes, stuff happens.

"We have come into this thing in the past thinking we just had to push, push, push and make everything happen at all costs," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "That hasn't been successful for us.

"Myself, Jimmie and the whole team have entered the Chase with a lot more casual mindset (this time). We don't take it lightly by any stretch of the imagination. We are working very hard. But, it is not live or die at this point, because if we do that, we aren't as good as we can be. We are taking it one step at a time, and we just roll with it."

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