BRISTOL, Tenn. – Jimmie Johnson will start first in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday, and to him it doesn’t really matter why.
“I don’t care how we got it, I will take it,” Johnson said after inheriting the pole when rain washed out Friday’s Sprint Cup qualifying at this .533-mile track.
Johnson has run a dozen Cup races here and hasn’t started better than fifth here. That changes with the rainout because Johnson finished first in the standings a year ago.
“It’s the last week for this luxury,” said Johnson, who will start alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.
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That’s because after this race, this year’s car owner points will be used to determine things like who starts where when it’s raining, and no matter what happens here Sunday, Johnson won’t be atop that list.
Johnson ranks 13th in this year’s standings after his No. 48 Chevrolet has, by the high standards it has set with its performance in its first six full seasons, sputtered out of the starting gate as he tries to join Cale Yarborough as the only driver to win three straight championships.
Johnson finished second in the season’s second race at California, but followed that up with a 29th-place finish at Las Vegas (where he’d won the previous three races) and a 13th at Atlanta (where he swept to two victories in 2007).
“We wish we were winning,” Johnson said. “We’re not excited that we’re driving our hearts out to finish 13th at Atlanta, and the week before that at Las Vegas was a disaster.
“We’re not happy to be in that position but that’s racing. Everybody goes through lulls. It’s not characteristic for start the season like this, but it is what it is.”
Johnson said he had big plans for the open week in the Cup schedule that follows Sunday’s race here. Those plans, however, have changed. Now he and his team will be going to Kentucky, Nashville and Milwaukee for tests during the “down” time before the next race Martinsville.
“We feel that over the past few weeks we’ve identified the problem and the areas where we need to work on,” he said. “We think we’ve found a direction.”
Johnson said there’s no panic on his team or at Hendrick Motorsports, which also is still seeking its first win of 2008.
“I think the confidence carries us through,” he said. “We’ve had years where we’ve had a couple of months where we didn’t get what we wanted to out of it. Through all of that after we had our first year or two under our belts, we knew where we stood with one another. “We’ll just hang together and it will carry us through."
Carl Edwards, who has won two of this year’s four races, starts ninth today. Kyle Busch, last week’s winner at Atlanta and the current points leader, will start 22nd where the No. 18 team finished in 2007.
Tony Stewart, who’ll start sixth Sunday, took advantage of the break in schedule provided by the rain to meet with Goodyear general manager of worldwide racing Stu Grant over the controversy stemming from tires used at Atlanta and Stewart’s postrace comments about them.
“We’re hoping Goodyear will now work with us a little betterand rely on our input a little more. It was a good meeting, but at the end of the day it’s up to Goodyear to make it right.”
Stewart said he apologized if his comments offended people who work to make the tires and those who work at the track to mount and unmount them at the track.
“My comments were strong to get someone’s attention high up in corporate at Goodyear,” Stewart said. “It wasn’t meant to offend anyone else.”
Grant said he was pleased with the meeting.
“It was extremely worthwhile to sit down and have a discussion with him,” Grant said. “Tony was able to express his concerns and I listened. I was able to explain our process and we both talked about howwe can improve the process of developing tires.”
Jeff Green, John Andretti and Patrick Carpentier failed to qualify for Sunday’s race. Green was driving the No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers this week.