NASCAR & Auto Racing

Jeff Gordon isn't giving up, but praises presumptive champion

MIAMI - Jimmie Johnson is a morning person.

There. Jeff Gordon said it and he is not backing down.

"I don't know if he does the coffee thing anymore, but he used to do four or five cups of coffee and be wound up at that first practice," Gordon said. "I usually don't get going until the second practice."

That's as controversial as it got as the only two drivers left in contention for this year's Nextel Cup championship met the media Thursday at the Doral resort to kick off Ford Championship Week activities in South Florida.

The Hendrick Motorsports teammates go into Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 with Johnson leading Gordon by 86 points in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

Johnson is trying to become the first to win two straight titles since Gordon did it in 1997-98. If Johnson falters badly, Gordon wants to be there to win what would be his fifth career championship.

"We're not going to give up," Gordon said. "We're going to go into this weekend's race giving it everything that we've got."

That's a little contradictory to, "move over," which is what Gordon said Sunday night at Phoenix after Johnson won for the fourth straight race to open the lead he now enjoys. But Gordon said understanding the stark reality - that Johnson can clinch the title with any finish of 18th or better - is not the same thing as acquiescing.

"We'll certainly accept the trophy and the check up in New York if we win this championship," he said. "But we also know the only way we can win it this weekend is if Jimmie has a problem."

So there is one more thing about Johnson that has been annoying Gordon here lately.

"He wins all the time," Gordon said. "I have an average finish of 5.2 in the Chase and I am 86 points down going into the final race. That irritates me."

Gordon has six victories, 20 top-five finishes and a career-best 29 top-10 finishes this year and, unless there's a dramatic turnaround in fortunes on Sunday, it's not going to be enough to earn him a championship.

Johnson has won 10 races, including Chase victories at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix that moved him from 68 points behind Gordon to 86 points ahead - despite the fact that Gordon finished in the top 10 in each of those races, too.

The question looming now, of course, is whether Johnson's winning a second straight title but outdueling his teammate means more that just this year's championship in the grand scheme of things.

Gordon won his first championship in 1995. The late Dale Earnhardt had won two in a row and four in five seasons before that, but never won another one after Gordon got his first. Gordon last won the title in 2001. The next season, Johnson made his full-time debut in the Cup Series.

"Until you win a championship, you have a lot of question marks," Johnson said.

"After winning last year's championship, it was easier for us to see the direction we need to go and the direction we need to follow. We've had a great run and I don't see that changing any time soon."

Neither does Gordon.

"Jimmie is definitely on top of his game," Gordon said of his teammate. "He sets the mark that we all have to aspire to and look toward. I am just glad that he's with Hendrick Motorsports."

Team owner Rick Hendrick said amen to that. But Hendrick also knows that however things turn out on Sunday, he's going to have one very happy race team and another one that's going to have to deal with the bitter disappointment of running well enough to win the title in most years only to have that bid fall short.

"It has been an unbelievable year," Hendrick said. "The guys have sure worked hard to get here. Somebody has to lose Sunday night, but with the kind of years both have had it's a shame they can't split the trophy.

"I don't think they want to do that, but it would be easier on me."

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