DOVER, Del. - Jimmie Johnson strolled through the Winston Cup garage and other teams gave him sidelong glances. He stopped to talk to his crew chief, and disappeared inside a circle of cameramen. When he reached his team's transporter, he found reporters and television cameras five layers deep.
Johnson, who is starting ninth in today's MBNA Armed Forces Family 400, is looking for his third straight victory at Dover International Speedway.
"The car is driving a lot like it did in the other two races here," said Johnson, who swept the two Dover races as a rookie last season. "The track just seems to suit Chad [Knaus, crew chief] and me. Last year, we had the magic here. I hope we can get it back."
The track, often called a monster because of its high banks and short circumference, requires patience and concentration from drivers who want to make it to the end of 400 miles without incident.
Johnson, the second-year driver who just signed a contract extension with Hendrick Motor- sports that will keep him in the seat of the No. 48 Chevrolet until the end of 2007, is well aware of Dover's treacherous nature.
"It's a tough place," Johnson said of the mile oval. "The driver has to hang on to the car and the biggest thing you have to pay attention to is the transition in and off the turns.
"The sensation of speed here is also among the top five in the sport and you're fighting the G-forces all the time. You can feel it in your legs and arms, and your eyes shake and rattle in your head, making everything a blur."
If Johnson wins today he would become only the fourth driver to earn a threepeat at Dover, joining Jeff Gordon (fall 1995 and 1996 twice), Rusty Wallace (fall 1993 and 1994 twice) and David Pearson (fall 1972 and 1973 twice).
To do it, he not only has to beat the racetrack but also outwit a field of competitors who want to stop him.
Wallace, who hasn't won in nearly two years but is starting on the outside of the front row beside his pole-sitting teammate, Ryan Newman, said he wouldn't bet on Johnson's chances.
"When you start adding up numbers like that, something always seems to screw up," he said.
Gordon, a part owner of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet, says he wants the winner's share of today's purse, not the owner's.
"They have momentum on their side with two wins in the last two weeks at Charlotte," said Gordon, who has won four races at Dover in his No. 24 Chevrolet. "Plus, they're undefeated here, having won twice as a rookie. I'm sure their confidence is sky-high right now. But our team is usually pretty confident here, too. We've had a lot of success on this track."
Sterling Marlin is another driver who wants to claim victory, and he thinks he has a pretty good chance of doing it in his No. 40 Dodge. In fact, Marlin, who dominated last season's Winston Cup points race until suffering a broken neck with just two months left in the season, believes he can rally from ninth in the points standings to seize the championship this year.
"We don't mind practice being rained out today because we ran our race stuff [Friday] instead of setting up for qualifying," said Marlin, who qualified sixth and was delighted when rain forced the cancellation of the second Winston Cup practice session yesterday.
"Our season has turned around. I nearly won California, except for miscommunication in the pits. I had a good race in Richmond. And I think if the [Coca-Cola] 600 would have played out to its finish we would have been contending there, too. I will say, we haven't had a lot of luck early this season."
When it comes to Johnson, Marlin grins slyly. He and Johnson have had several unscheduled meetings on the track this season, and it was Johnson who won the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600.
"I talked to him in Charlotte," Marlin said. "I said we've got magnets in our pockets because we've [hit each other] three times this year. It's no problem between us.
"He's got a great race team up under him and he's going to run good. He's supposed to run good. But 400 miles here is a long way. We'll see. I think my car is pretty good, too. Hopefully, we'll be right there with him."
Johnson sees even more teams of which to be wary. Looking through raindrops, he pointed toward the cars of Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Bobby Labonte.
So, would Johnson bet on himself to find last season's magic again today?
"I always bet on myself - every race," he said.
NOTE: For the Busch MBNA 200, the rain cleared and driver Joe Nemechek became the first pole-sitter to win the race since 1986, when he beat Scott Riggs to the finish line by 0.413 of a second. His No. 87 Chevrolet averaged 101.417 mph, but that might not have been enough had Matt Kenseth not had car trouble.
MBNA Armed Forces Family 400(Car number in parentheses)
1. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 158.716 mph.
2. (2) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 157.322 mph.
3. (19) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 157.198 mph.
4. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 157.006 mph.
5. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 156.651 mph.