Yellow has its privileges
Johnson is a devoted Lance Armstrong fan and like millions has been inspired by the courageous efforts of the American cyclist who, in addition to beating cancer, has won the 2108.3 mile, three-week Tour de France five times and should wrap up a record sixth victory on Sunday in Paris.
"I'm watching the tour on television religiously," Johnson said.
Earlier this month Johnson began wearing a yellow wristband to support Armstrong's cancer foundation. If NASCAR were anything like cycling though, Johnson would be wearing a yellow jersey, too. In cycling yellow is a status symbol, reserved exclusively for the leader; exactly what Johnson has been in the Nextel Cup series since mid June.
While Armstrong pedaled through the French Alps this week looking to secure that unprecedented sixth Tour de France title, Johnson encroaches upon New England's White Mountains hoping to pick up right where he left off in 2003. Last year Johnson won both races at the flat one-mile New Hampshire International Speedway, surprising some, including him.
"My style was to really attack hard and drive hard, and on a track with very little banking you can't have that," Johnson said. "I've typically been very fast on tracks where you have to be aggressive and a track that required more patience was a weak spot for me."
Patience is just one part of the equation. Judgment, skill and countless other intangibles must also be developed before a driver has truly matured. But in just three Cup series seasons, Johnson has already cultivated veteran-like qualities.
"He's not in learning mode, he's in 'I get it' mode," said Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate and car owner.
Those are flattering words for Johnson, and frightening words for the competition. After all, for Gordon 'getting it' has meant four championships.
"I'll tell you what, I think they are definitely a car to beat, and a team to beat for the championship this year," Gordon added. "He's consistent, he's fast, focused. I'm excited, but I'm also worried because I know they're the guys we got to beat."
The maturation process was clearly evident in New Hampshire a year ago. Midway through New Hampshire's September race, Lowes' team members Cory Quick, Ryan McCray and Chris Anderson were struck by Gordon's car on pit road. But the team never missed a beat.
"Jimmie asked if they were OK and I said yeah they're fine," recalls Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus. "He said, 'Well alright, what we are going to do?'"
Johnson maintained his focus and did his job, bringing their car to victory lane.
"We don't buckle in those situations, we work harder and we're always able to step up," Johnson said proudly.
Since 2002, his rookie season, Johnson has collected nine career wins. There's plenty of reason to walk around with his head high and chest pumped out. Yet he doesn't. That approach would be completely out of character for this team.
"Confidence is great, cockiness isn't," explained Knaus. "When we win a race we know that it's not because of a tire changer, we know that it's not because of a crew chief, we know that it's not because of the driver. It's because of the team."
Now, like the Tour de France, the Nextel Cup season heads into its mountainous stages. But for the 48 team it appears things are all down hill from here. At least for the next eight races before the post season cut off.
"We're sitting in a pretty comfortable position right now," Knaus said. "We'd have to have a lot of things go wrong for us to fall out of the top 10."
Johnson agrees, saying, "Where we're at, it's been great, we can take some risks. We can take chances."
The team is taking somewhat of a risk this weekend. Instead of bringing the car that won both New Hampshire races a year ago they've brought their Martinsville / Richmond car. The idea is to give Johnson a choice which car to run in the second New Hampshire race -- the first event in the Chase for the Championship.
"It's 'freebee' test time as far as I'm concerned," said Knaus. "We're going to work on a lot of different things to try to make sure that when we get to the final 10 races that we're prepared the way we need to be prepared to win the race and win the championship."
That's the crew chief's job. For the driver, all he needs to do in the final 10 races is duplicate what he's done so far this season.
"I'm going to race it just as hard as I ever would. It's the same for everyone," Johnson confidently asserts. "It's time to get to work and make sure I put [together] the best 10 [races] of my life at the end of the year to be the champion."
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.
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