Nobody's running as well as Johnson

Updated: June 18, 2004, 7:03 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Extra tires. Check. Extra belts and hoses. Check. Extra body parts. Check.

Extra fresh batteries for the calculator. Triple check.

Jimmie Johnson is making sure he leaves nothing to chance for Sunday's DHL 400 at Michigan International Speedway, especially after what happened to him the last time he took to the 2-mile MIS layout.

It was last August, a day Johnson remembers clearly. He led the GFS Marketplace 400 at MIS three different times for 50 laps. He looked like he had a bead on the checkered flag until a gross miscalculation on how much fuel he had left in the tank of his No. 48 Chevrolet forced Johnson to pit for more fuel with just two laps left in the race.

End result: Instead of possibly winning, he finished a disappointing 27th.

Yet despite the frustrating outcome, Johnson is chomping at the bit to bounce back this Sunday. And with wins in two of his last three starts -- as well as his third-place qualifying effort on Friday -- JJ could be called the driver to beat this weekend.

"The last race we had there was the first time we felt we were really competitive there in quite some time," Johnson said (even though he finished a career best seventh-place there one year earlier). We found out more of what we need handling-wise. You think California would apply to Michigan (both are similar tracks), but for some reason it doesn't exactly. We've been good at California and have missed Michigan until the last race of last year. I'm very excited to go back. We have made gains in the engine department and gains in aero and setups as well. Hopefully we'll have more than the rest of them and win."

Johnson has been nothing short of dominating of late. He led an incredible 334 of 400 laps en route to winning at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend. After being knocked out in a 19-car wreck at Dover the following week, finishing 32nd, he bounced back at Pocono this past Sunday to again be the most powerful car in the field, leading 126 laps en route to his second triumph in three weeks.

He hopes to make it three out of four this Sunday, just another cog in building what he hopes is a championship-winning machine. Yet at the same time, even with the success he's already had, Johnson knows there's still another 22 races remaining.

"It's hard to get too confident," he said. "As long as you're within the top 10 or 400 points, it all starts over at race 27. I feel that based on our races this year at those tracks and what we did last year, we should be one of the teams competing for the championship. It's something on the forefront of all our minds. We've had two great seasons and have been building for a championship year."

Johnson has been methodically laying the groundwork for a championship:

  • He's the only driver to lead at least one lap in 11 of the first 14 races.

  • He's tied with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for most wins of any drivers -- three apiece.

  • Other than the wreck at Dover, he has two wins, two runner-up finishes (California and Richmond), two other top-four finishes and one top-nine outing in seven of his last eight races.

  • He's led 820 miles in the last three races.

    If that doesn't appear like a foundation for the Nextel Cup trophy, nothing does. Even the opposition has taken notice.

    "They're on their game," said Ray Evernham, owner of the No. 19 (Jeremy Mayfield) and 9 (Kasey Kahne) Dodge teams. "Last year Ryan (Newman) and Matt (Kenseth) were on their game. I think Chad (Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief) and Jimmie are on their game. I think Chad is a great young crew chief, and Jimmie is a very focused race driver. Rick Hendrick gives 'em what they need to work with. Right now things are going their way."

    Indeed, Johnson and Knaus have been the hottest driver-crew chief pair in the business the last month and a half, maintaining a stranglehold on second-place in the standings for the last six races.

    Sitting just 58 points behind the series-leading Earnhardt Jr., Johnson could not only extend his dominance Sunday, but also has the potential to move into first-place for only the second time in his Cup racing career (he was No. 1 for just one week following the race at Kansas in 2002, his rookie season).

    "I think our chemistry as a team and organization breeds the consistency side," Johnson said. "When I come in and explain what I'm feeling, he (Chad) comes in and works on it. I think our chemistry as a whole is the foundation in our teams' success."

    Knaus takes an equally humble approach in explaining things of late.

    "It's not what Jimmie and I do," Knaus said. "It's what everybody at Hendrick Motorsports does. It's what everybody on the 24 (Jeff Gordon) and 48 team does. It's what Mr. Hendrick (team owner Rick Hendrick) and Lowe's does for us. They allow us to go to them and say this is what we need. They give it all. That's something that a lot of teams don't get. If we don't put the pieces together it's our fault."

    Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@Yahoo.com.

    Jerry Bonkowski | email

    Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
    Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.
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