Johnson ready to shed runner-up status

Updated: January 19, 2005, 8:01 PM ET
Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- After losing the title by just eight points last year in the closest championship race in the history of NASCAR's top series, Jimmie Johnson can hardly wait to put that behind him and get started on 2005.

"As far as '05, we finished up strong last year and had to overcome one of the biggest challenges with the airplane going down,'' Johnson said, referring to the Oct. 24 crash of a Hendrick Motorsports plane in which 10 people, including team owner Rick Hendrick's son, brother and two nieces were killed.

"Professionally, personally and the range of emotions that go along with that ... we've had a winter to heal some more.

"Everybody has a spring in their step. We're looking forward to a great season.''

Johnson is testing this week at Daytona International Speedway, along with the other teams that finished in even-numbered positions in 2004 Nextel Cup points.

Scott Riggs led the way Wednesday in a Chevrolet at 186.097 mph, followed by Johnny Sauter's Dodge at 185.935 and the Chevys of Joe Nemechek at 185.924, Robby Gordon at 185.300 and Johnson at 185.193.

The top lap by Riggs places him second so far this month. Dale Jarrett turned a lap of 186.455 in a Ford during three days of testing last week by the drivers who finished in the odd-numbered positions in the points.

Johnson, who won a series-high eight races in 2004, has been in Cup racing only three years and has finished in the top five in points each time, including the runner-up spot each of the past two seasons.

"To be second two years in a row, we really, really want a championship,'' Johnson said. "From growing up around the sport, watching it, and working in it, it's not something you sign up for and get.

"Last year was a very special year for us to win eight, overcome the tragedy of the airplane, and win four in the final 10. That's going to be tough to beat. A championship will beat that.''

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press