Johnson on a roll, but COT could change everything

Jimmie Johnson is on another hot streak, but it's a whole new race this week when the Car of Tomorrow finally makes its debut, writes David Newton.

Updated: March 19, 2007, 2:19 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Before the sun set over Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, before Jimmie Johnson completed his burnout after a second straight victory, Nextel Cup teams were looking ahead to tomorrow.

Jimmie Johnson
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson got to have a postrace burnout for the second straight week. As good as his COT test was, he could make it three at Bristol.

As in the Car of Tomorrow.

The much-debated COT will take the track competitively for the first time this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. Teams already are scurrying to prepare for Thursday's pre-qualifying inspection.

"Let's just focus on Bristol, man," said Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus. "It doesn't matter what car we're taking. To go to Bristol you're always on pins and needles wondering what's going to happen, what the outcome of the race is going to be.

"We went to the test at Bristol and we actually had one of our best tests ever. I'm really excited about going there for the first time and think that we've got a shot at having a very successful race."

He should.

Johnson has won consecutive races at Las Vegas and Atlanta to climb to fourth in points, 28 behind leader Mark Martin, who will take a two-week sabbatical while Regan Smith drives the No. 01 Chevrolet.

Johnson's primed, whether it's in the car of today or Car of Tomorrow, to make a strong run at a second consecutive championship.

Were he not mixed up in a crash at the Daytona 500, he already would be in the points lead that he's held more than any driver over the past four seasons.

"Right now, it's easy to feel good about things and there's no doubt that the championship is what's on our minds," Johnson said. "We're doing the right things, but it's just way too early to get excited. We've got to stay focused on the goals and that is making the Chase.

"I feel confident that we're off to a good start."

Juan Pablo Montoya also left Atlanta feeling confident after a career-best fifth-place finish in his fifth-ever Cup event. He's now 15th in points, only 19 out of the 12th and final spot that will qualify for the Chase.

But Montoya isn't quite as confident as Johnson with the uncertainty of the COT and some tough short tracks coming up in Bristol and Martinsville. Last week's tire test at Darlington also made him wary of the May race there.

"This was a good weekend," Montoya said. "The next ones are going to be pretty hard. We've got Bristol; that's going to be a nightmare. Martinsville will probably be another tough one.

"Darlington, let's not even talk about that one."

Robby Gordon had reason to be optimistic after Atlanta as well. He settled his dispute with NASCAR to get Motorola back on the hood of his car as a primary sponsor and finished 20th to hang in at 16th in points.

Not bad for an independent owner of a single-car team.

"Even though it's a 20th, it's another big, big points day for us and we'll continue to move toward the front," Gordon said.

It wasn't a big day for everybody.

Jeff Gordon
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDefending Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is off to a hot start, fourth in points. His teammate Jeff Gordon, rear, is second.

Kasey Kahne was involved in a crash with David Reutimann, Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers that left him with a 39th-place finish and 36th in points.

If he doesn't have a good run at Bristol and move back into the top 35, he'll be forced to qualify on speed the following week at Martinsville.

Not quite what one expected from the driver who led the series in wins a year ago with six.

The best news for Kahne is team director Kenny Francis will return next week from a four-race suspension for violations discovered in the opener at Daytona.

Robbie Reiser, the crew chief for Matt Kenseth, also will be back from suspension. But Reiser's task won't be quite so daunting with Kenseth fifth in points after Sunday's third-place finish.

Biffle, who came within 35 points of the title two years ago, has dug himself into a hole for the second straight season. He's 27th in points after finishing 41st in Atlanta.

The entire Toyota camp is in a hole. Dale Jarrett, who has used four of his six past champion's provisionals to race this season, is the highest-ranked driver at 33rd.

Dave Blaney is next at 38th, followed by Vickers at 40th, Reutimann at 43rd and Michael Waltrip at 51st, still digging himself out of the 100-point penalty NASCAR gave him at Daytona after a foreign substance was found in his engine. .

Jeremy Mayfield and A.J. Allmendinger haven't cracked the board because they haven't made a race.

Toyota officials are so disenchanted with the start that Jim Aust, the CEO of Toyota Racing Development, said there might come a time soon that the company puts most of its money and effort into the COT that likely will be used for every race next season.

"Eventually, we're going to have to put behind us any development on the cars of today and say, 'This is about all we can afford, we need to look forward to next year so we can get started the way we anticipated we would this year,' " Aust said.

By Thursday, everybody will be focused on the COT.

Nobody will be more confident than Johnson.

"Granted, we still have a lot of racing left, so I don't want to get too far ahead of myself and toot our own horn about things," he said. "[But] through last year, even in the final races of the Chase, we've taken another step as a team maturing."

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

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