HAMPTON, Ga. -- A year ago, the pressure was almost unbearable for Jimmie Johnson as he prepared for the fall race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
This time is different.
"I'm in a much better place and I'm actually enjoying this year and this championship battle," said Johnson, who is second in the standings, 53 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, heading into today's Pep Boys Auto 500.
Johnson flirted with a championship in each of his first four seasons in NASCAR's Nextel Cup series, never finishing worse than fifth and twice winding up second -- once by just eight points.
Heading into this race last year -- the sixth of 10 events in the Chase for the championship -- Johnson was second again, trailing Matt Kenseth by 26 points and living with the distinct possibility of falling short once more.
He persevered, though, winning the title and removing the massive weight of unfulfilled expectations from his shoulders.
Johnson said the breakthrough has made him a more confident driver.
"I feel that you can try too hard, and I've tried too hard in the past to win races, to win poles and even to win championships," he said. "And, this year, I feel a lot like after my first win, that coming back for the second win it's a little bit more of a clear picture that you're looking at instead of just red in the eyes and intense and trying to do whatever it takes to get it."
Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, can see the difference in his friend.
"Jimmie is much more relaxed and focused," said Gordon, whose team works out of the same race shop as Johnson's. "He understands now what it takes to win a championship, and he knows now that he and his team can get it done. That makes him even tougher to beat."
"I've been there (and) I feel like I know where to focus," he said. "I know how to let some things roll off my back that would stress me out or worry me from track to track -- as you lose points or gain points, the pressure that's either positive or negative that comes with it."
In some ways, the pressure has shifted to Gordon, who hasn't won a championship since 2001, which also means he hasn't finished on top under the current Chase format, which began in 2004.
Gordon was dominant during the "regular season," this year, building a lead of 312 points over runner-up Johnson after the first 26 races. But, thanks to NASCAR's new seeding format, based on wins, that lead was erased and Johnson started the Chase leading Gordon by 20 points.
BUSCH SERIES, at Memphis, Tenn. -- David Reutimann failed to qualify for today's Nextel Cup event at Atlanta, so he soothed his feelings with his first Busch Series win.
Reutimann avoided trouble to capture the caution-filled Sam's Town 250 at Memphis Motorsports Park. The 37-year-old Toyota driver endured a green-white-checker finish for his first Busch Series victory in 63 starts. It also was owner Michael Waltrip's first victory for the manufacturer.
CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS, at Hampton, Ga. -- Kyle Busch made the most out of a lucky break, pulling away from Ron Hornaday Jr. to win the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Busch was rolling along in third place with 26 laps to go in the 130-lap race when he was blackflagged by NASCAR for having the driver-side window net unhooked. Seconds before he would have had to pit, a crash brought out the caution flag and allowed the Nextel Cup star to make his stop under yellow and remain in contention.
NHRA, at Las Vegas -- Tony Schumacher, Robert Hight and Chip Ellis held on to their No. 1 qualifying positions at the ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals, each earning eight vital points in their bids for world titles.