Johnson Considered Favorite At Pocono


Three-time Defending Series Champion Second In Points

July 31, 2009|By Keith Groller | Keith Groller,Tribune Newspapers

LONG POND, Pa. - -Tony Stewart is fiery. Kyle Busch is boisterous. Jeff Gordon is cool. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the heir apparent.

Jimmie Johnson is ... well ... simply the best in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series right now.

The three-time defending series champion may not be the brash, colorful personality who can be marketed into a Tiger-like superstar, nor is he the type likely to turn up in one of those 15-second sound bites you'll hear on SportsCenter.

He just wins races, like last Sunday's Brickyard 400 at Indy.

As the 2009 Sprint Cup season heads down the stretch run toward "The Chase for the Cup" beginning with Sunday's Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway, Johnson will be front and center.

His quest for an unprecedented fourth straight series title will be the dominant story line over the season's final months.

Johnson is second in the point standings behind Stewart but still considered the one to beat.

"I feel good," the 33-year-old California native said. "The victory this last weekend is helping that a lot. We've been so close to winning races, but there's nothing better than pulling into Victory Lane and closing the deal. ... [There has] just been a lot of races where we've been fast. I feel very good about what's been going on."

No wonder. He's a star for Hendrick Motorsports, the Yankees of NASCAR.

But Johnson isn't just a product of a championship machine. He has a knack of pacing himself through the grueling marathon that is the Sprint Cup schedule and always positions himself well for the finish.

Last year, he won the last two races before "The Chase" began and then tacked on three more victories during the 10-race chase that has become NASCAR's "playoff season."

Because Pocono's "Tricky Triangle" offers similarities to Indy, where he has won back-to-back Brickyard races, Johnson is considered one of the favorites for Sunday's race. He has three wins, nine top-5s and 14 top-10s at Long Pond, where he finished seventh in the Pocono 500 on June 7.

He has not won at the track since 2005, however.

He won't get himself out of alignment by thinking too much about it.

"The less I let in my head the better," he said. "I don't want to think about these things.

"I'm not good at thinking. ... If I can keep that stuff out of my head, not think about what could be or what I could do for myself and my career and status, the better I'm going to be."

And Johnson getting even better is a dangerous thought for the rest of the field.

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