Johnson overcomes adversity to win again

Jimmie Johnson won in Las Vegas for the third year in a row. That his team overcame adversity with its usual aplomb is something for the rest of the Nextel Cup Series drivers to fret over, writes David Newton.

Updated: March 12, 2007, 12:16 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers and teams were in Victory Lane late Sunday afternoon ready to take a picture celebrating the organization's 150th career win.

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon
Harry How/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson won the race. His teammate and car owner, Jeff Gordon, finished second and led the most laps.

Well, almost all the other drivers.

Jeff Gordon was in the media center talking about his second-place finish and how NASCAR needs to get more input from Nextel Cup drivers and crew chiefs when changing the makeup of a track, something that was not done with the reconfiguration of Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the past year.

When asked whether he wanted to leave for the photograph and return for more questions on what was becoming a hot topic, Gordon said his teammates could wait.

Fitting, since Johnson's third straight win on this 1.5-mile track in the land of slot machines and cactus made Gordon wait at least another week to tie the late Dale Earnhardt for sixth place on NASCAR's all-time win list with 76.

Gordon has been living in Johnson's shadow for much of the past four years, and Sunday was no exception as Johnson took the lead from him with 26 laps remaining and never relinquished it.

At least Gordon can keep a sense of humor about it. Asked whether all he has going on -- from taking a new bride late last season to preparing for the birth of their first child -- has been a distraction, he planted his tongue squarely in his cheek.

"I think I would have won the race today if I didn't have a baby on the way," Gordon said. "I guess that was my distraction. I lost concentration. I was thinking about that baby and what I'm going to name her."

The crowd of reporters burst into laughter.

Gordon then got serious. He didn't make excuses for what happened.

"We basically got beat," he said, telling how Johnson was able to take advantage of Jeff Burton getting on Gordon's high side to get around him like no other driver could on this sun-splashed day.

Losing to Johnson is no disgrace. If he keeps winning at his current pace, he might pass Gordon and Earnhardt in total wins. His 24 victories since 2002 are 15 more than Earnhardt had at the same point in his career and only six fewer than Gordon at the same point in his.

The team's ability to adjust is second to none. It rallied from 247 points back four races into the 10-race 2004 championship chase to within eight points of the title. It rallied from 156 points back four races into last year's Chase to win the title.

On Sunday, it rallied from a penalty with about 150 laps remaining after losing a tire out of the pit box and came from 26th to first.

Johnson & Co. stole the thunder on a day when many predicted mayhem and disaster would rule because Goodyear made the right-front tire so hard that handling on the newly paved, higher-banked surface was like racing on ice.

"I expected it to be one of the most painful races we've had," said Mark Martin, who maintained the points lead with a fifth-place finish. "I predicted much more gloom and doom than that."

He should have predicted a Johnson victory. The Vegas oddsmakers certainly made JJ a favorite, and why not? This team excels under adversity the way Michael Jordan did in clutch situations.

And because much of this season will be an adverse situation with the Car of Tomorrow being introduced and used in 16 races, Johnson has to be the favorite to repeat.

"It'll be a lot of fun, or I'll be balder," said Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus.

Responded Johnson: "You should just shave it."

"He and that team, they're fighters. They proved it today. They prove that with every win they've had here. That's why they won a championship last year."
-- Jeff Gordon

He paused, then continued: "Nobody laughed. Everybody wants to go home. We'll focus."

Focus was the key to the No. 48 team's success this weekend. While other drivers and crew chiefs complained about problems with the tire, Knaus and Johnson looked for solutions.

That doesn't mean they liked having the tire thrust on them after spending three days testing here in January with a different compound. Johnson was so frustrated after the first lap that he radioed that the tires were "horrible."

Knaus radioed back and said, "Look, bud, we'll figure out how to make it work."

This team doesn't win just because owner Rick Hendrick provides better resources. This team wins because it outthinks much of the competition.

At one point, Knaus radioed to his crew to get the television cameras and reporters out of the way so he could make a few strategic decisions without the rest of the world knowing.

He has gone as far as to use hand signals and pass notes instead of talking on the radio, which lets anybody in the grandstands or garage listen in. One day, we might see him covering his mouth with a pad the way many football coaches do on the sideline to keep opponents from reading lips.

"It's tough to keep a secret," Knaus said.

It's no secret that Johnson and Knaus will be a factor in the Chase. They don't come to the track simply to race for points. They come to win.

Knaus made that clear in his prerace speech to the team. Johnson reiterated it over his radio after taking the checkered.

"Whooo boys!" he shouted. "Nothing like winning."

Gordon understands, which helps him smile after finishing behind his teammate -- again.

"He and that team, they're fighters," he said. "They proved it today. They prove that with every win they've had here. That's why they won a championship last year. That's why they'll be a threat to win more races this year and a championship."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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