Johnson looking for two in a row

Friday, July 25, 2003

LONG POND, Pa. (AP) -- Jimmie Johnson looks at the series standings and realizes a second straight victory will do little more than solidify his spot in the top five.

Winning Sunday at Pocono Raceway would represent a major gain in the Winston Cup championship chase only if leader Matt Kenseth were to falter. Johnson isn't counting on that.

"It appears that they are very much in control right now," he said of Kenseth, whom he trailed by 419 points after 19 of 36 races. "We're a little further behind than where we'd ideally want to be."

So are the rest of NASCAR's top drivers. Johnson's car owner, Jeff Gordon, is the closest to Kenseth but still 234 points behind.

Although he has won only once this season, Kenseth is demonstrating the value of consistency. He has eight top-five finishes and 15 top-10s in a low-key title run that mirrors his personality -- little excitement but a lot of productivity.

"All you can do is go and run as hard as you can every week and try to gather as many points as you can and see how it shakes out at the end of the year," Kenseth said. "Things are just falling into place."

That was the scenario last Sunday, when Johnson made only a minimal points gain while winning the New England 300. It came at New Hampshire International Speedway, where Kenseth had not been a contender, but he got a break when qualifying was rained out and he started first based on points.

And Kenseth finished third, making a major points gain after contender Gordon fell all the way to 24th late in the race. Johnson's title hopes also were damaged, and he knows victories won't enable him to move from fifth to the top unless Kenseth falters.

"When it looks like they might have a bad day or we think we might be able to beat up on him a little bit, they have put themselves in position," Johnson said. "Before you know it, the No. 17 has worked its way into the top five or top 10 when the checkered flag falls."

Johnson likes his chances in the Pennsylvania 500, his fourth career start at Pocono. The 2 1/2-mile triangular track is unique on the circuit because the drivers shift as if they were on a road course.

It's a place where few drivers expect to succeed in their first few starts. But Johnson believes he can get his sixth career victory Sunday.

"I know the track well now," he said. "We can unload off the truck and I'll know what line I need to take.

"Once you get a few experiences here, it really makes a difference. We just hope everything stays together and we have another solid day."

Victory probably won't be achieved with anything less than a near-dominant performance. Johnson will have to outrace several drivers with glittering credentials on the mountaintop.

Defending race champion Bill Elliott -- the only five-time Pocono winner -- figures to be one of the prime contenders. Three-time winners Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon also should be formidable as well as series champion Tony Stewart, who won the Pocono 500 last month.

Also overdue for a victory is four-time Pocono champion Rusty Wallace, mired in a career-worst 81-race losing streak.

Elliott was hampered last month because he drove while continuing his recovery from a broken foot.

"I'm pretty much back to normal and that will definitely work in our favor," he said. "Obviously, we had a good little run going coming into this race last year and ended up getting the pole and winning but like I've said before, everything has to be perfect.

"The competition is so close and so good now, you can't afford to make one mistake."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: