System gets no points from Johnson

Upcoming adjustments for The Chase upset him

Auto Racing

August 01, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LONG POND, Pa. - Jimmie Johnson, 28 and three years into his Nextel Cup career, is ready to be a champion.

"To me, it's personal," he said. "I've won races. I've won poles. It's time for me to win the championship."

And, at this point in previous seasons he'd have been perfectly positioned to do it. But this is a different season, a season in which the points system has been changed. Because of the change, 10, maybe 13 drivers are still in the running for a place in the final Chase for the Nextel Cup.

"If the points system wasn't different this year, Jimmie Johnson would be in a very comfortable place to win the championship," said four-time champion Jeff Gordon, a co-owner of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet. "I think he has the kind of chemistry and momentum to this point in the season that wins championships."

Going into today's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway, Johnson has 2,850 points and a 165-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is less than 100 percent due to second-degree burns suffered two weeks ago during practice for a sports car race.

Johnson also has a 202-point lead over Gordon. Fourth-place Tony Stewart is 302 points back.

This weekend, Earnhardt said he still feels miserable, but managed to qualify the car 16th. Johnson starts 14th.

"I can't do much besides sit in this car," Earnhardt said. "I'm told the burns will get worse before they get better, so I'm just keeping them clean, trying to keep them from getting infected and waiting for them to heal up."

Earnhardt said he hopes not to call on John Andretti to sub for him in the No. 8 Chevrolet during the race.

"I think I can go the distance," he said. "I mean, I ain't had much fun sitting on the couch."

Whatever advantage Johnson has over his rivals will be history six weeks from now. If he remains in first place, he'll see his advantage suddenly shrink to a mere five points over whoever is in second, and the rest of the Top 10 will be right on his tailpipe, no more than 45 points behind.

"It's going to be a free-for-all and I don't believe in my heart that's the way your champion should be determined," Johnson said yesterday, shortly after practice for today's race was cancelled because of rain.

"The only good thing I see in the points-system change is that when something unfortunate happens, like what happened to Dale, it's not going to kill your shot at the title. I certainly don't want to win a title because someone is hurt.

"But, to me, the champion should be a guy who has competed well on all 36 weekends."

In NASCAR's new system, the Top 10 drivers and any other driver within 400 points of the leader after the Sept. 11 Chevy Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond International Speedway will qualify for The Chase.

The Chase is the final, 10-race segment of the season that represents NASCAR's version of a postseason playoff to determine the series champion.

Drivers involved will have their point totals adjusted after Richmond. The first-place driver will have 5,050 points, the second-place driver 5,045, the third-place driver 5,040 and so on. From there, they will continue to compete under the standard point system.

It means Johnson, if he remains the points leader, will have to stay calm and focused when his points lead disappears.

"I can't help wondering what it would be like if it was the same as last year," Johnson said. "But I've always been good at facing reality. When we get to the final 10 races, I'm going to make the best of it."

Trying to get a jump on the competition, Johnson's team has been making the most of its point lead by experimenting. Last weekend in New Hampshire, a new car setup cost them competitively, but Johnson held on for 11th-place.

"We have enough of a lead that we want to keep trying things," Johnson said. "What we had early in the year worked well, but people have caught up. We have to keep going forward or, when we're in the final chase, we might be behind."

Currently, each of the first five in the Top 10 - Johnson, Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman - has five or fewer years of experience and is seeking his first Cup title. Elliott Sadler, in his sixth season, is also going for his first crown.

The other four - Gordon, Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Bobby Labonte - each has at least one title.

All but Johnson have reasons for favoring the new system, but Johnson said the many story angles mean nothing to him.

"In my view, those guys wouldn't have had a shot in past years and shouldn't have one now," he said. "Those other angles - the young guns, the veteran champions, even that it's my time - it's not the way I see it.

"For me, it's all a personal goal to get better every year. I was second in points last year. I admit, I haven't left myself much room to improve, but I hope to be able to do it. In my mind, that's the only story that matters."

At a glance

What: NASCAR Nextel Cup Pennsylvania 500

Where: Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pa.

When: Today, 1:30 p.m.

TV: TNT

Qualifying

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