NASCAR & Auto Racing

Johnson wins, reprising role of favorite as Chase nears

FONTANA, Calif. – After the lead came back his way following green flag pit stops in Sunday’s Sharp Aquos 500 at California Speedway, Jimmie Johnson was tooling along in the high groove keeping one eye on Kyle Busch in his mirror.

Johnson thought Busch was the first car chasing him, and the No. 5 Chevrolet wasn’t getting all that big all that fast in that mirror.

Busch, however, had grazed the wall and crinkled up his car a bit. He was just trying to hold on, and what he was holding onto was third place.

Carl Edwards, meanwhile, had another view of what was going on.

“I thought he was going to be a sitting duck,” Edwards said of Johnson. “He was searching and he was a little slow.”

The deal, you see, was that Johnson wasn’t aware that Edwards had moved into second place. And Edwards, you see, didn’t know that Johnson didn’t know that.“With like five or six laps to go I heard it was the 99 in second,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t recognize the hood on his car. I thought, ‘Well, that must be the 99.’ And I went back down on the bottom and started matching his times.”

What all of that tells you, of course, is just how good Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet was on its way to the team’s fifth victory of the season but the first since May 6 at Richmond.There were cars that ran well low and cars that ran well high. There were cars that were good on short runs and cars that were good on long runs.But when the sun went down, the air cooled to a level tolerable to human flesh and the track had done all of the changing it was going to do, Johnson was able to put his car wherever it needed to go to stay out front.

When Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and their Hendrick Motorsports team are on their game, that happens a lot. Johnson has now won 28 races in 208 career Nextel Cup starts, a winning percentage of 13.5 percent that ranks second among active drivers only behind teammate Jeff Gordon.

Oddly, the calendar seems to have something to do with it, too.

Johnson has only five career wins in June, July and August combined. But he’s won 12 times in March, April and May, and nine times in September and October. He’s had one victory in February, his 2006 Daytona 500 win, and one in November.

Now in his sixth full Cup season, Johnson has been asked repeatedly about how might change his team’s pattern of getting a fast start, then hitting a slow spell before surging late in the season. But given that Johnson has never finished worse than fifth in the standings, the better question might be why would he want to?“I don’t know why the cycle goes like it does,” Johnson said. “We all look at our weak points and try to pick those up. We’ve tried to address the tracks in the summer and what to do, we just didn’t get the results.”

Johnson was without Knaus for much of this summer, as his crew chief served a six-race suspension for a rules violation at Infineon Raceway in late June. The team finished fifth and 10th in the first two races Knaus missed, but then wound up 37th after Johnson wrecked at Chicagoland and tore up one of Knaus’ favorite cars in the No. 48 team’s fleet. Johnson then was 39th after another wreck at Indianapolis, and the typical summer shakes had returned.

“I certainly was concerned,” Johnson said. “We had great race cars but bad luck and lost a lot of ground.”

Johnson fell all the way to ninth in points, but he finished fifth, third and third in the first three races in August to steady everyone’s nerves. Knaus was back and despite an off night at Bristol, the team came here set to re-establish itself. Knaus had supervised a rebuild of the car that got wrecked at Chicagoland and brought it here with a purpose.“We really wanted to come out here and win this race,” said Knaus of this 2-mile track, which was the site of the team’s first win in April 2002. “We felt very confident coming in.”

Johnson led 65 of the final 82 laps and, once he figured out who was actually chasing him, generally in control of things. He finished it off 1.9 seconds ahead of Edwards.Hendrick Motorsports cars won 10 of the season’s first 14 races, but hadn’t won since Gordon’s victory in that 14th race at Pocono in June.“I told you guys,” team owner Rick Hendrick said after Johnson broke the 10-race dry spell. “I said, ‘It won’t be long before you ask me what’s wrong.’ I was waiting for that. I knew it was going to come. I was concerned that we had peaked too quickly.”

Apparently, though, Johnson’s team was just going back down its own well-worn path.

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