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Rookie Handling NASCAR Pressure Just Fine

Auto Racing: With seven races to go, leader Jimmie Johnson trying to become first first-year driver to win points title.

October 06, 2002|MIKE HARRIS | Associated Press

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Jimmie Johnson already has accomplished something no other first-year driver has done: lead the Winston Cup points standings.

Suddenly, a rookie winning the championship isn't such an outlandish thought.

Going into today's EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Johnson is out front in the closest points race in NASCAR history.

The California native, who turned 27 on Sept. 17, is only 11 points ahead of second-place Mark Martin, while Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace and fellow rookie Ryan Newman all remain within striking distance of Johnson with seven races to go. Fifth-place Sterling Marlin will miss the rest of the season due to injury.

Like everything else thrown at him, Johnson appears to be handling the added pressure of a title race just fine.

"We've been in the top five since the midway point at least, maybe even earlier, and have been hanging around the top five all season long," Johnson said. "That has given us the reality that we might have a shot at it.

"But ... it's kind of a novelty item to be leading right now. There are just so many opportunities at Talladega for things to change and shake up again. It's great to be in the position we're in but until we get through the superspeedway race [Talladega] and the short track race [Martinsville], I don't think there's any sense getting too worked up over it."

It's ovals such as 2.66-mile Talladega and .526-mile Martinsville--the longest and shortest on the circuit--on which Johnson has the least experience.

The former off-road racer who mastered the jolting terrain of Baja is quick to adapt. Johnson simply regards racing at those tracks as a chance to get some hands-on learning.

"I've gained a lot of confidence in my abilities as a driver and my abilities to communicate what I feel under the race car," he said. "But, most importantly, I've learned how important it is to have the right chemistry with the people that surround you and how important that is in the level of competition in Winston Cup."

He was hired to drive the No. 48 Chevrolet by four-time Winston Cup champion Gordon. He knew Johnson would be good, and now Gordon is enjoying the unexpected situation of having his driver in the championship hunt.

"I just like the fact that he's got confidence," Gordon said. "There's an old saying that he 'races like he doesn't know any better,' that he shouldn't be able to do all that he has accomplished in the sport this early in his career. That's Jimmie."

Among Johnson's accomplishments in the first 29 races this season are four poles, three victories--matching the rookie record set in 1999 by Stewart--and 18 top-10 finishes, closing in on Stewart's record of 21.

There have, of course, been some disappointments. The car broke a gear at Sonoma in June, and then there was Bristol and Robby Gordon.

In the heat of the moment at the rough and tumble Bristol track, Johnson lost his cool for the only time this season. He flipped his middle finger at Robby Gordon, who had hit him on a restart and sent him into the wall.

"With so much on the line, contending for the championship, my emotions got the best of me," Johnson said. "It's something I won't do again in the future--I'm a professional and need to be acting like a professional, and not out there making obscene gestures."

Now he faces the high banks of Talladega, a place where the championship can't be won but could be lost.

With horsepower-sapping restrictor plates bunching up the cars on the big track, it seems as if there's always at least one big accident, involving a number of cars.

Johnson avoided trouble here in April, finishing seventh.

"When you strap yourself in, you know the odds aren't going to work in your favor," he said. "One of the times you strap yourself in there, something's going to happen and you're going to hit something hard.

"I really try to put some positive energy out there and get the team to think the same way. We'd like to make sure that that everybody on the team puts forth some creative thoughts toward us coming home with all the fenders on the car."

Very little has intimidated Johnson all year, and this dangerous race isn't going to change his approach.

"You never know what's going to happen at Talladega," Johnson said. "So we're not really worrying about it too much."

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