Defending champion Johnson denies any worry about his recent struggles

September 18, 2010|By Shawn Courchesne, Tribune Newspapers

LOUDON, N.H. — — Is Superman's cape ready to be yanked off?

Much of the talk surrounding today's first race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Championship at New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been focused on the perceived vulnerability of four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team.

In the months leading into today's Sylvania 300 Johnson and his team have looked uncharacteristically mortal. After winning back-to-back events at Infineon Raceway and NHMS in June, Johnson went through a seven-race spell that saw him record one top-10 finish and five finishes of 22nd or worse.

If the cracks are really there, Johnson is doing a splendid job of hiding any worries.

"We've had enough slow summers that I don't feel vulnerable going into the Chase," Johnson said. "I know the tracks that are on the schedule, and we all know how good they are for me.

I don't think that I'm any different this year than last year. Stats may show that this year I'm actually in better shape than I was last year. … I know that we respond well to pressure, and I'm excited for it. I feel good about things. … I'm not going to stress about the past, I'm not going to carry baggage in from the regular season and I hope my team doesn't."

The 12 drivers in the Chase field had their points reset to 5,000 to start the playoff, and drivers who won races during the first 26 races of the season were awarded 10 bonus points for each victory.

On the strength of his five victories in the first 17 events, Johnson will start the Chase second in the standings, 10points behind Denny Hamlin, who had six victories in the regular season.

While some have portrayed this Chase field as the most wide open in years, Johnson's competition isn't lulled into believing he's not the favorite.

"I think what stands out to me is no matter how he's run through the season and how many times you guys want to say, 'Oh, he's vulnerable,' boom, he's right there in the Chase," said Kyle Busch, who starts the Chase tied for third place, 20 points behind Johnson. "It's like they flipped the switch on and they're there. They know how to do it. They know how to run these last 10 races. … They're able to put it together; they always have fast racecars. Jimmie is a pretty smart driver and knows what to do in certain circumstances. He's pretty smart at knowing how to win a championship, being able to do it four times in a row."

Johnson is looking to become the first driver to win five consecutive Sprint Cup titles.

"Each year, I have had more fun in the Chase," Johnson said. "I am hoping that this is a sign that I am more relaxed, enjoying the moment, and I'm going to give 100 percent either way, so the less I stress about things, I think the better I'm going to run. I've seen that trend as well. I'm excited, I'm relaxed and looking forward to the Chase and we'll see what happens. Hopefully, I can be more relaxed this year and enjoy the experience and make even better decisions yet because I'm in the right place in my life."

Johnson starts 25th today in Loudon, his worst starting position in 18 career Sprint Cup Series starts at the track. Johnson used a late pass of Kurt Busch to win the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 on June 27.

scourchesne@tribune.com

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