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NASCAR : Johnson just wants to forget about Texas

November 14, 2009|Jim Peltz

AVONDALE, ARIZ. — No offense against the Lone Star State, but Jimmie Johnson couldn't wait to stop talking about Texas.

Johnson's march to a record fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title was rudely interrupted last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

An early crash left Johnson with a 38th-place finish and enabled teammate Mark Martin to slash Johnson's lead in the championship standings to 73 points from 184.

Now Johnson hopes to at least keep, or even widen, his remaining lead in Sunday's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, the next-to-last race in NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup title playoff.

"I just look forward to getting back on the racetrack so that I don't have the memories and thoughts of Texas in my head and have something new to think about and focus on," Johnson said Friday ahead of qualifying for Sunday's race.

Then the El Cajon native qualified third in the 43-car field in his No. 48 Chevrolet prepared by Hendrick Motorsports. "It felt nice to drive a car today and shake off what happened last week," Johnson said.

Martin Truex Jr. won the pole position with a lap of 135.120 mph on the one-mile Phoenix International track, while Kurt Busch -- who won last Sunday in Texas -- was second at 134.579 mph.

Martin, saying he was "just a little sloppy" in his qualifying lap, will start 10th. He won the spring race here in April.

Jeff Gordon, another Hendrick driver who's third in the Chase standings 112 points behind Johnson, qualified 14th.

Johnson was confident when he arrived here, despite the Texas setback, because he has won three of the last four races at the Phoenix International oval.

"I feel that a 73-point lead is a very, very healthy lead," said Johnson, 34. But he acknowledged replaying the Texas crash, and the impact it had on his point lead, in his mind. "I know I couldn't have done anything differently. So I'm just like, 'Get me in the car again,' " he said.

As for the prospect of running into more trouble in the desert, Johnson said, "I don't think lightning can strike two weeks in a row. I'm certainly hoping it doesn't."

The 50-year-old Martin, meanwhile, said he would be happy regardless of whether he wins his first title or is runner-up to the champion for the fifth time in his career.

"I'm going to look at 2009 and say I've had the best year of my life personally, as well as professionally," said Martin, who came out of semi-retirement this year to join Hendrick and take another shot at the championship.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bakersfield's Kevin Harvick, who have both won twice at Phoenix, qualified 18th and 31st, respectively. David Gilliland of Riverside qualified 29th.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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This week

CHECKER O'REILLY

AUTO PARTS 500

Phoenix International Raceway Avondale, Ariz.

12:30 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 7

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