NASCAR & Auto Racing

'When you get the monkey on your back, it’s hard to get him off,' defending Cup champ says

LONG POND, Pa. – What drives reigning Nextel Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson these days?

Well, there’s fear.

The fear of another bad finish or the fear of dropping out of the top 12 in points and fear of duplicating an ominous feat most recently accomplished by Tony Stewart.

Stewart won his most recent series championship in 2005 then failed to make the Chase field last season and was denied the opportunity to defend his title.

Johnson enters Sunday’s Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway (2 p.m. Eastern, ESPN) riding a performance streak that appears headed in the same direction. He has dropped from second to ninth in series points in the past seven races.

His best finish during the span was fifth at New Hampshire. He has finished 37th or worse in three races, including the past two.

Asked of he was worried about replicating Stewart’s feat, Johnson didn’t mince words.

“I don’t want to be in that situation. We’ve worked too hard. We’ve been too strong, also.

"If we were running 30th each week and we were in that position, I’d say, 'OK, we don’t have our stuff together,' ” said Johnson, who starts seventh in Sunday's race.

“But to be in this position because of tires blowing and a couple of mechanical issues and being caught up in wrecks and different things, that’s a harder pill to swallow.

"We don’t need to change anything. We’ve been competitive. We have great race cars.”

Johnson maintains the disturbing trend in finishes is not in any way connected to the recent absence of crew chief Chad Knaus, who was suspended for six races after improper modifications were found to the front fender of Johnson’s car the weekend of the June 16 race at Sonoma, Calif.

“Even with Chad’s absence we’ve been running competitively. We’ve been qualifying well. It’s just bad racing luck,” Johnson said.

“We can’t lose focus on how good of a team we have and let that affect the way we approach these last few races before the Chase.”

That’s easier said than done.

Johnson, with four wins this season, is actually in good shape when the Chase starts, so long as he remains in the top 12.

With the Chase standings reset after the 26th race based 10-point bonuses for number of wins, Johnson would be ranked near the top of the standings as the final 10 races got under way.

What he is missing, however, is the momentum good finishes bring him and his team.

Johnson tried to get a gauge on his team’s mental status in a meeting at the Hendrick Motorsports shop earlier this week.

“I’m real close with my guys and I know everybody is still doing well, but sometimes it’s nice just to sit down with no pressure and just talk and see what everybody’s got on their minds and how we can improve everyone’s mental status,” he said.

“I want them to know what I’m feeling and know what they are (feeling). I want to make sure we all know we’re an amazing team and that we still have a chance to win the championship and that we’ve been doing a great job at the tracks.

“The next few races are good tracks for us; Pocono being one of them. It just seems like when you get the monkey on your back. it’s hard to get him off. We really need to start finishing in the top 10 to make sure we transfer into the Chase.”

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