Johnson takes on leadership role with crew chief serving suspension

Sunday, February 26, 2006

FONTANA, Calif. -- Jimmie Johnson knew it was time to take a more commanding role.

With crew chief Chad Knaus removed by NASCAR, Johnson and the rest of the No. 48 Chevrolet team responded with a unified effort in winning the Daytona 500 last week.

Lead engineer Darien Grubb moved across the pit box to fill in for Knaus on race day. Johnson drove a patient, nearly perfect race on the way to the 19th win of his Nextel Cup career.

Johnson, a two-time series runner-up who has never finished lower than fifth in his four full seasons in Cup, wants to take the next step and win a championship.

When NASCAR tacked on another three races to Knaus' suspension for an unapproved change to the rear window of Johnson's car during Daytona qualifying, the driver decided to do more than simply support Grubb and the rest of the crew.

"Chad is such a strong leader," Johnson said. "His personality really does it on its own, and that's an area I need to focus on. The guys want me to be a little bit more in that role. And, now, with our latest situation, I'm the senior guy."

Johnson is certainly leading on the track -- a victory in Daytona and third-place qualifying run for today's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway.

"But I'm just trying to be around for the guys, too, and keep the spirits up," Johnson said. "When anybody has time to sit and think, that's when you get nervous. But, if I stick around and keep the guys pumped up and smiling and keep positive energy rolling, everything's in good shape."

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