Making the Chase is the easy part for Johnson

Updated: May 17, 2006, 4:18 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Expectation are always high for Jimmie Johnson, who has spent a greater percentage of his early career within the top 10 than any other driver in modern-era history.

Jimmie Johnson
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesThese are good times for Jimmie Johnson. He'd like to be having a better time in November as the Nextel Cup champion.

And nearly a dozen races into the season, Johnson is right where you'd expect him to be -- atop the rankings. This year, however, he's got a slightly adjusted swagger and attitude which, he hopes, will help him finish where he's been expected, also.

Dating back through last season, Johnson has led the points race during the regular season (the first 26 races of each year) in 25 out of 37 weeks. That's almost 70 percent of the time. It's obvious that the driver of the No. 48 Chevy gets the regular season. It's the playoffs where he needs work. In the two-year history of the playoffs -- that's 20 playoff weeks -- Johnson has led the points race only once.

"We have to figure out a way to carry it through," crew chief Chad Knaus said.

Things are looking a little bit different this year, though. Sure, Johnson's atop the standings -- and he has been for nine out of 11 weeks. Johnson is not a stranger to Victory Lane. Through the same number of races, Johnson's 21 victories are just eight wins shy of Jeff Gordon's modern-era record-setting pace.

"I didn't realize that," Johnson said. "It puts a smile on my face to hear that. With the organization I drive for and Jeff helping out, I'm very lucky to be in this situation and have made the most of it, raced as hard as I could and proud to be here and be a part of it. I didn't know that stat and hopefully I can keep par with him. It'd be nice to have 60 or 70 victories when it's all said and done."

But in his career, he's never won more than one event through 11 races. This year, he's got three wins and is heading into the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend -- which he's won three years in a row.

"It is a very strong race team," Johnson said. "Chad Knaus has done an amazing job of building the race team, putting it together and really training us all in our positions. I think we surprised ourselves along with the whole racing community coming out and winning the races that we did without Chad. Bristol (finished 30th) really wasn't the greatest welcome back for him the way things went there but after that we went to Martinsville, won the pole, finished third and fought for the win all day long. We had a great performance and I think we were able to show that this team is something to really pay attention to and that we are really serious about this season."

Adversity struck early when NASCAR suspended Knaus for first four races of the year because of a rules infraction found prior to the season-starting Daytona 500. Even then, the team banded together, won the 500 and won against one race later at Las Vegas.

"I don't have an explanation why," Johnson said of his team's poise. "I'm glad that we've been able to produce during tough times especially with the bad things that have happened with our airplane going down [in 2004]. We were able to produce on those days, that day in Atlanta. I don't know why it's happened. I'm not sure why we rebound back like we do.

"The only thing I come up with is regardless of the situation our guys keep their cool and we maintain. We know our potential and we go out and strive for that. We don't try too hard. We don't throw in the towel. We just go out and give 100 percent and have been able to deliver doing that."

That's important for now. But it's 10-fold more important during the final 10 races of the year -- the so-called playoffs. It's then where Johnson has struggled. Johnson led the points races in both 2004 and 2005, but in 2004 he fell to as low as ninth during the playoffs and in 2005 he fell as low as sixth.

This year, Johnson and Co. want to be sure that they are taking advantage of their early-season points performance. While other teams search for ways to finish in the top 10, Johnson's team is using races at tracks like New Hampshire, Dover, Talladega, Lowe's Motor Speedway, Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix -- locales where the circuit races twice, with one of the races during the Chase -- as an opportunity to do some research.

"We are paying close attention to every race," Johnson said. "Martinsville is in the Chase as is [Texas]; we look at this as a test session getting ready for the final 10 races. In the situation we are in right now by getting off to such a good start, we can strategically play this game. The teams that have had a slower start, [these races are] just as important to the one in the Chase and they have a different agenda out there.

"For us, we want to bring a well-refined package. One that is based on good notes from the track for our car setup and bring it back later in the year."

In hopes that Johnson can win more later in the year, and be atop the points standings when it really counts -- after the last race of the year in Homestead.

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.