HOMESTEAD, Fla. – There has to be a term for whatever Jimmie Johnsonis doing. But the people who’re trying to catch the driver with astranglehold on this year’s Nextel Cup championship are having troublecoming up with it.
“He’s on a roll,” Ryan Newman said Friday after qualifying at176.569 mph for Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway only tosee that come up second best to – guess who.
“No,” Newman continued, “he’s on the next step beyond a roll. Iam happy to be competing with him and against him.”
Newman would be happier to beat Johnson, of course, but there hasn’tbeen much of that happening lately.
Johnson ran 176.788 mph to win his fourth pole of the season and histhird in the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup. Add that to his string offour straight race victories that have him 86 points ahead of JeffGordon with everyone else in the Chase already eliminated, and it’s nowonder Johnson’s success has his rivals at a loss for words.
“It doesn’t surprise me when he wins anything, no matter what day ofthe week it is any more,” said Kasey Kahne, who was third fastest at176.350.
But from Johnson’s point of view, the fact that he and his team havedone their jobs remarkably well won’t mean much if they don’t finishthe task with two more solid days or hard work.
“We’re very happy to cross Friday off the list,” said Johnson, whoneeds to finish 18th or better in Sunday’s race to close out Gordon.
Unless Gordon, who will start 11th, can win the race and lead the mostlaps, it might not even take that much.
Given that Johnson hasn’t finished worse than, well, first in a monthit seems almost like a foregone conclusion that the driver of the No. 48Chevrolets will wrap up a second straight championship on Sunday.
But Johnson said he can’t think that way.
“I worry about those things,” he said. “What we can controlwe’ve done a good job with and I know that we’ll be fine in thatrespect. But it’s the things out of my control that worry me – anincident on the track or a mechanical failure.”
Johnson also admits that just about every weekend, no matter how wellthings have been going, he finds himself worrying that, from the verybasic levels, whatever has worked for him in the past might not workagain – almost like he’s literally forgotten how to get the cararound the track.
“I have those doubts, and they motivate me,” he said. “Deepinside, I do have all of the confidence. But I still have these littletriggers inside my head. And I am glad they’re there. I don’t wantto let my guard down.”
Johnson has been first or second in the standings coming into the finalweekend in each of the past five seasons. Last year, he came toHomestead needing only a 12th-place finish to finally earn his firstcrown and wound up finishing ninth. Some of the same feelings he facedlast year are back again, he said.
“I was on the bus before qualifying started and said, ‘Now Iremember the pit in my stomach, the butterflies and the heart racingwhile I was just sitting around waiting,’” Johnson said.
“What I’ve tried to think about is just keeping things simple and making ourcar comfortable to drive.”
Johnson vowed that during Saturday's practices he’ll work to get hiscar “more comfortable,” meaning he’ll eschew the normally loosefeel he’s brought to stock cars from his background in off-roadracing. Instead, he and crew chief Chad Knaus will try to make the car alittle more forgiving in traffic since only a major mistake would allowGordon to slip back in to win what would be his fifth championshipinstead of making Johnson the 15th driver to win multiple titles inNASCAR’s top series.
Matt Kenseth will start fourth and Kurt Busch fifth, followed by MarkMartin, rookie David Ragan, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards andGordon.
AJ Allmendinger and Michael Waltrip were among those unable to make therace. Sam Hornish Jr. made the field for the second straight race andwill start 29th. Greg Biffle, who has won this race in each of the pastthree seasons, will start 37th.