As No. 1, rookie Johnson shows major strength: calmness

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

October 06, 2002|By Sandra McKee

If veteran two-time Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte is the "Ice Man," what does that make Jimmie Johnson?

The rookie is leading the drivers' point standings and not even sweating.

"We're just kind of a novelty item right now," Johnson said during a conference call. "But we're in a neat position."

Today, in Talladega, Ala., in the EA Sports 500, Johnson will try to retain his No. 1 ranking, with Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon snarling over his shoulder. Looking back and seeing those three men would be enough to make almost anyone wonder: "What's a rookie doing in a place like this?"

Johnson admits he wonders. "Look," he said. "We're just as amazed and shocked as everyone else." But that doesn't mean it spooks him. He's from El Cajon, Calif., not that far from Hollywood's dream factory.

"We have an opportunity of a lifetime," he said. "We'll just see what happens. I've never been in this situation before. I don't have a clue [about what's going to happen]."

There is a definite calm about him. At age 27 he isn't a kid, but he isn't a veteran in the big leagues, either. What he is is well prepared. He said ever since he began racing he has had to come through in big moments.

"There has always been somebody that I had to talk into giving me the opportunity," Johnson said. "They'd say, `OK, we'll give you a try.' And they'd let me test the car. The test led to a race and the race led to the next thing. So I've had pressure on me to perform throughout my whole career.

"Everybody does. But I had pressure where if I didn't make the most of an opportunity, I wasn't going to race. So I've always found a way to keep a positive outlook on it and not let the pressure consume me, bother me or stress me out. If you're not stressed out and bothered, and under pressure, you can make the right decisions."

So cool. If you put Johnson in a tux, you wouldn't be able to pick him out of a flock of penguins. Come to think of it, if you'd put him in a tux, he'd be properly dressed for the season-ending Winston Cup champions banquet in New York - which is where he could very well be the guest of honor.

Blame misplaced

There has been a lot of squawking over Michael Schumacher's decision to let teammate Rubens Barrichello win the U.S. Grand Prix last weekend in Indianapolis. But the blame for the corrupted finish does not lie with Schumacher.

The blame should be directed at the Formula One organizers who continue to operate under a "traditional" understanding that it is acceptable for team management to manipulate the finish of their teams' cars.

That's where the blame belonged in May when Barrichello, who was leading the Austrian Grand Prix, was ordered by Ferrari management to slow down and let Schumacher win.

If Formula One would outlaw the "understanding" that orchestrating finishes is OK, Schumacher would never have thought of "giving" his teammate the win as a "deserved payback" for the Austrian win.

Why? Because Barrichello would have won in Austria and there would be nothing to pay back.

The FIA World Motor Sport Council has set Sunday, Sept. 28, as the date for the 2003 U.S. Grand Prix. Wonder what's going to happen in that race?

Da Matta closing

Driver Cristiano da Matta can clinch his first Championship Auto Racing Team title - and his Newman/Haas Racing team's fourth - this weekend in the Grand Prix Americas in Miami. All he has to do is stretch his 58-point lead over fellow Brazilian Bruno Junqueira to 68 points.

If he does, it probably will set off a celebration in the streets, because Miami is the place da Matta calls home.

"Not only is it my home track, but I only live one block away," said da Matta. "Just the friends of mine that are planning to come will probably pack the place. Everyone has been talking about this race since it was added to the schedule.

"I have friends from Miami and Brazil who are coming. Miami is where the biggest population of Brazilians live outside of Brazil, so I'm sure a lot of Brazilians will be at the race. They are at most of our races and it's good that we have been able to give them something to cheer about. They follow open-wheel racing and soccer - they go everywhere for those two things."

"It's going to be nice to race in front of the crowd in Miami. Every time you race in front of a lot of people from your home, it makes you feel special and important."

The trophy and the $1 million bonus that goes with it probably would help that feeling.

Nuts and bolts

Corvette drivers Doug Goad and Devon Powell have a one-point lead in the Grand Sport I team championship in the Grand-Am Cup Series point standings. That race and several others, including the one involving Maryland-based Team Lexus in the Sports Touring I class, will be decided in the Grand American Finale at Daytona International Speedway Nov. 9.

Team Lexus driver Jean-Francois Dumoulin maintained his five-point lead in the ST I driver standings, and team owner Chuck Goldsborough has jumped from seventh place to third with his second place in Toronto last weekend.

Flossie Johnson, the former wife of NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, is known within the NASCAR community for her extraordinary southern cooking. She will share her culinary secrets for the first time when she introduces a new cookbook Wednesday at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C.

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