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Two-time Cup champ Johnson to race former F1 ace Schumacher

12/14/2007 - NASCAR

LONDON -- Many Formula 1 racing fans scoff at the very thought of NASCAR, consider it no more racing than a Monster Truck rally, and perceive it as a dog 'n' pony show contrived from corporate marketing that belongs on the main stage at the county fair.

Conversely, many NASCAR fans fly the single-digit salute at F1, pay it little -- if any -- mind, figure it's a glorified homecoming parade at 200 mph staged in some faraway land they can't even pronounce.

Love lost? Not so much. It's a lack-of-respect thing.

Well, folks, listen up. Regardless of your respective allegiance, come Sunday evening you'll have unmistakable bragging rights. Why? Because the very best in NASCAR is set to strap in and square off against the very best in F1 -- in identically prepared cars -- as part of the 20th running of the Race of Champions Nation's Cup.

Race organizers told ESPN.com on Thursday that Jimmie Johnson and Michael Schumacher will race head-to-head in Sunday's event.

Back-to-back Cup champ vs. seven-time F1 title-winner.

No excuses.

"It's one hell of a great opportunity to race against the best in the world, and as a driver that's what you're always looking for -- it's what you want," Johnson said Thursday while dining on sushi at Nobu London. "It's a different type of race. We're only going about 30 mph [average], so we'll have to be really technically sound. Hitting your marks will be key."

Thirty miles per hour. That may seem mundane -- your granny drives that speed on the highway, after all -- but it's not. Far from it. Having covered this event last year in Paris, I will testify to its intensity and precision. These boys are here for three reasons: (1) It's fun as hell; (2) To beat the best in the world; (3) To win for their country.

And they mean it. Go through the motions? Get embarrassed.

"Everyone recognizes [Schumacher] as a champion, and after winning my second straight championship in NASCAR, I hope I'm perceived that way," Johnson said. "Beating him and helping Team USA win the Nations Cup would be the perfect ending to the best year of my career."

If Johnson prevails over Schumacher, it will boost the perception of stock car racing overseas. Schumacher retired last year, but don't think for a minute he's lost anything behind the wheel. And rest assured, he wants to win this badly, too.

Some say NASCAR and F1 don't pay mind to one another because they have completely separate goals. Whatever. Everybody wants to be king.

Think about it. For a random guy here in London to pick up the paper Monday morning and see that a NASCAR guy beat one of the most celebrated drivers of all time would have to positively affect NASCAR. And though neither side will admit it, there is an unspoken rivalry between NASCAR and F1.

Juan Pablo Montoya told me earlier this year that I was reaching for something that's not there. He'd know, so he's probably right. But it's the biggest thing in the States vs. the biggest thing in Europe. How could there not be a rivalry?

All said, this faceoff is a race fan's dream scenario. Johnson and U.S. teammate Travis Pastrana will run head-to-head against Team Germany, for whom Schumacher is paired with Sebastian Vettel of F1's Scuderia Toro Rosso team.

Johnson and Schumacher will be driving four-wheel-drive Fiat Grande Punto S 2000s in a two-lap sprint before handing the wheel over to their respective teammates.

The ROC concept is akin to that employed by the former IROC in America -- pitting champion drivers from various forms of motorsport against one another in identical cars to determine who's best. But whereas IROC was run on ovals, the Race of Champions is staged on an asphalt track laid inside a stadium.

After several years at the Stade de France in Paris, the event moves this year to London's hallowed Wembley Stadium.

And ROC is broken down into two competitions -- a team competition in which eight two-man teams will battle for the Nation's Cup, and an individual competition in which every driver on hand races to be crowned best of the best.

Nation's Cup comes first. USA vs. Germany.

Johnson vs. Schumacher.

But if you ask me, there's a lot more on the line than just Johnson vs. Schumacher.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.