NASCAR & Auto Racing

Top-gun status - and being gunned for - still strange, Johnson says

CONCORD, N.C. - After winning the Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago, Jimmie Johnson provided a remarkable bit of self-evaluation.

"I sucked my whole life until this level of racing," the two-time defending Cup champion said.

That's why, Johnson said, it's hard for him to think of himself as the guy everyone is shooting at as this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup reaches its midway point with the Bank of America 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

"I know it is hard for everyone to understand, but that is me,” said Johnson, who will start from the No. 1 spot in Saturday night's race after qualifying was rained out Thursday. “My whole life I have worked really hard and have done OK. ...Through it all, I ran just well enough to make it to the next spot and still have hope and showthat I could do the job.”

Johnson said he tore up a lot of cars as he drive off-road trucks and then moved into stock cars in the American Speed Association and then what's now the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

“All I did was show up and try to learn,” he said. “And at times I was a slow learner who made a lot of mistakes. But once I figured something out I didn't let go of it and that's really been my path throughout my career. It might take me a little while to sort something out but when I've got it, I've got it and I don't let go of it.

“It has worked out, I just didn't know that it would take 18 or 20 years of my racing career to develop all the skills needed and then I'd have my chance.”

Saturday night's race will be Johnson's 250th career Cup start. It comes at the same track where he made his first, in October 2001.

Johnson finished 39th in that race, but after that he finished seventh or better in his next 10 points races here, winning five times including four in a row with May and October sweeps in 2004 and 2005.

After finishing second in both races in 2006, he was 10th and 14th at this 1.5-mile track last year and then wound up 39th after his engine failed here this May. Still, the fact that Johnson comes into this weekend with a 72-point lead in this year's Chase standings doesn't make his fellow title contenders terribly comfortable.

“There is no question that they have been consistently better at these two race track than the rest of the field,” said Jeff Burton, who's fourth in the standings 99 points back. “I don't think there any debating that. What we have to do is do better. We're not going to give it to them. They're going to have to earn it. We can't ask them nicely to give it to us, we just have to go take it from them.”

Being in that position – the team everyone is shooting at – took some getting used to, Johnson said.

“There is no doubt that the challenges of being a champion have changed me some and I feel it is all for the betterm” said Johnson, who is trying to join Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win three straight titles in NASCAR's top series. “At times I have to be more guarded or protect it, but still at the end of the day, I am just Jimmie. I just do my thing and am genuinely surprised that so much has happened.

“My whole life I have worked really hard and have been just OK. I have always wondered why I didn't have my chance and why everything didn't work out in the ASA or the (Nationwide) Series or in Trucks. Now that is all said and done I look back on it I get it. It wasn't my turn yet. Now it's my time and thank God it's this massive scale.”

Carl Edwards, who's 72 points back, starts alongside Johnson on the front row on a 43-car grid set by the NASCAR rule book. Greg Biffle and Burton are on Row 2 with Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick in the third row.

The rest of the Chase drivers line up in the next three rows – Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

Kasey Kahne, who won the all-star race and the Coca-Cola 600 here in May, starts 15th.

Thursday's rain kept Brad Keselowski, Scott Speed and Bryan Clauson from attempting to qualify for their Cup debuts. Derrike Cope also failed to make the race.