- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus vowed they'd be better at taking things in stride this year than in seasons past. The pressure of the Chase for the Nextel Cup wouldn't be as oppressive using such an approach.
"Frankly, I'm not going to live in a world where I'm hoping for someone to have trouble. I just don't operate that way. I'm going to live in a world where I need to go out and score points."
-- Jimmie Johnson
Well, that theory certainly will be put to the test starting this weekend at Dover International Speedway. Engine problems early at New Hampshire left Johnson back in the pack. Then he was collected by Sterling Marlin and sent into the wall.
The end result was a 39th-place finish, enough to drop him from second to ninth in the standings with nine races left. Now 139 points behind leader Kevin Harvick, Johnson has his work cut out for him.
"We just need to get to work and go racing. We've got a great race team," Johnson said. "We've been able to score a lot of points all year long. We definitely got off to a start that we didn't want. That's racing. Stuff happens."
Johnson said it wasn't a dropped cylinder, as initially thought, but a problem with a sparkplug wire that slowed him early in the Sylvania 300. His Hendrick Motorsports crew will do what it can to ensure it doesn't happen again, knowing that a second poor race likely would be a crushing blow to his championship hopes.
One bad race, though, hasn't dimmed Johnson's enthusiasm for snaring a title that has been within his grasp the past few years.
"You know, we just got to go racing. There's still nine races left in this deal," he said. "We're very excited, very pumped up. The guys have great spirits. I have great spirits. [It's] just time to get to work."
The same is the case for HMS teammate Kyle Busch, who was involved in a pair of on-track incidents Sunday. Extensive repairs after the second incident left him 38th at New Hampshire, dropping him to 10th in points. He trails Harvick by 146 points.
And unlike with Johnson, who is a veteran of the first two editions of the Chase, the playoff pressure is new for Busch. Still, he heads to one of his favorite tracks, having finished second at Dover in both 2005 races and fifth there in June.
It's just Busch's second full-time Cup season, but he said he knows how to approach the final nine races after the tough start.
"We want to go out there and make sure we run the best we can. We feel like we've got a great shot to run up front in seven of the nine races left in the Chase," Busch said. "The two that we have to look out for are Texas and Atlanta because we somehow struggle at those two places.
"Going into Talladega, though, will be a crapshoot for everybody. We feel like our restrictor-plate program has really picked up this year, but we haven't had much luck. All in all, we're excited about the remaining races. I'm looking forward to it, and there are a lot of good chances for us to be successful."
Success will be necessary in droves for Johnson and Busch. Alan Gustafson, Busch's crew chief, insists his team has the proper mind-set for the challenges ahead.
He said the team showed that at New Hampshire.
"We like Dover. We've run well there. We're not panicking, and when we unload there, it's going to be business as usual," Gustafson said. At New Hampshire, we had to fix the car twice, but we didn't panic and we didn't give up. We're here to win it, and we're not going to let up because of one tough race."
Johnson said meetings with his team Monday and Tuesday ensured that everyone's on the same page and pumped up for the task ahead. He insists he doesn't have a strategy other than to go out and race.
"I need points is the bottom line. You can look at that and recognize there's sometime times where you need to be aggressive, and also times where, if you cross the line and crash the car, you're not going to score any points or enough points," Johnson said. "It's just that delicate balance that we really deal with all year long.
"I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know if guys are going to have troubles. Frankly, I'm not going to live in a world where I'm hoping for someone to have trouble. I just don't operate that way. I'm going to live in a world where I need to go out and score points. My team and I, we need to do the best job we can."
Busch said New Hampshire was his team's mulligan, which he wasn't expecting to use at a track where he won in July. He just knows the recovery has to start at Dover.
"It's only one race, and if you can tell me right now all 10 of us are going to be perfect every race, I would be willing to dispute that," Busch said. "We've dug ourselves a hole. It's not too easy to live with, but we can't let it bring us down. We just have to climb out."
Johnson showed that it can be done, to a point at least. His team was 247 points out of the lead with six races left in 2004 before he won three straight races and four out of five. In the end, he lost the championship to Kurt Busch by just eight points.
With that perspective, he knows being 139 points out with nine races to go isn't insurmountable. Outscoring Harvick by 15.4 points per race the rest of the way would get him the lead, assuming Harvick remains at the front of the pack.
"This team is capable of so much. If we show up, give 100 percent, do our job, I truly, in my heart, feel like we'll be back in the middle of this thing," Johnson said. "I can't forecast the future. I don't know what's going to happen.
"All I can do is control my team and what we do in the next nine races. I still think we're in a position to score points and get ourselves back in this points battle."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.