Johnson races back into Chase

Friday, October 27, 2006

The perennial contender won last week's race to climb into third place in the standings.

The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson is back in the hunt for the Nextel Cup title after being written off after the first round of the Chase.

Engine troubles and an accident led to a 39th-place finish in the Chase opener, putting Johnson in such a deep hole that even he doubted he could climb back into championship contention. He'd done it the previous two years, but a third frantic rally seemed unlikely.

Yet here he is again.

After last week's win at Martinsville Speedway, Johnson jumped four spots to third place, 41 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

"We've had the spark and speed and excitement and desire; the fire's been lit," Johnson said. "We've just unfortunately had some bad luck. Now everything has balanced out, and we're back in the middle of it."

Three years ago, in the first season of the Chase, Johnson dropped to ninth in the standings early in the postseason. Then he used three consecutive wins -- and four in five races -- to make a run at the title. He fell just short, winding up eight points behind champion Kurt Busch in the final standings.

Johnson didn't fall as far behind last season, when he slipped to sixth following a ho-hum opener. But he was fifth with six to go and needed a win at Charlotte to put himself in contention entering the finale. Alas, a flat tire at Homestead derailed his effort, and Johnson was fifth when it finished.

"Sometimes I think they do better when they are angry and get behind," teammate Jeff Gordon said of Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team after the New Hampshire trouble. "I look for those guys to be on quite a tear in the next five or six races and try to get themselves back into it.

"Obviously, that isn't how you want to get your Chase started ... but we have seen Jimmie do it before."

Can he do it yet again? The competition certainly thinks he's capable.

"I know it's going to be tough to beat the 48," Kenseth said. "He's been so close the last few years, and he's the only one of us able to click off wins like they are nothing."

Next is Atlanta, one of the places where Johnson won during the 2004 Chase. He's almost always good there, with six top 10s in 10 career starts. Four of those finishes were inside the top four.

He certainly won't lack confidence when the green flag falls Sunday. Much of that comes from the team's leadership -- team owner Rick Hendrick and even Robert Niblock, the chairman of Lowe's, Johnson's primary sponsor.

"We have great leadership through Rick Hendrick and Lowe's and the way they support our race team -- they really handle things differently than anyone else," Johnson said. "They are in the shop cheering people up. Robert Niblock is in [the shop] personally talking to the guys and spending time with them.

"All of that helps the attitude."

Running well helps, too.

"We've been competitive. We've been fast," he said. "What we can control and what we can do and where we know we were running is what we sleep on at night. We know we've been competitive through it all.

"So no one has been down and out -- even from the disaster in New Hampshire. We all left there with smiles on our faces. We didn't like the situation, but we knew we were fine. And we were happy with how we were performing."

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