Johnson focused on Chase, not controversy
It's fair to say Jimmie Johnson was an instant hit when he entered the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series in 2002. After winning the pole position for the Daytona 500 and exhibiting his trademark cool and humility, he was what teammate and owner Jeff Gordon was not: good for all ages, all genders.
After bringing out a wreck at Talladega Superspeedway last week, and bringing in a shower of criticism and accusations for previous foul-ups at the superspeedway, it's clear the California native has lost much of his general appeal and become a controversial addition to the series.
It remains to be seen how he deals with lingering questions about his driving style -- questions that no doubt will surface whenever the series returns to Talladega. What's more pressing, however, is the reception that awaits him as he and the No. 48 team arrive at Kansas Speedway, site of the fourth stop in the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Johnson is in fourth place in the standings, 84 points out of first, and has to wonder what his stock is worth in the garage among his peers now -- particularly because the Talladega incident took out fellow Chase contenders, and because that wreck came one week after Johnson won at Dover, Del., while using shocks NASCAR found inappropriate and later banned.
For his part, Johnson is eager to move forward.
"Everybody keeps referring to the shock thing, and I don't see an issue," he said. "There isn't an issue there, so that just doesn't exist in my mind. Talladega? I feel bad. I don't know what else I can say. I started a wreck and took out a lot of good cars."
Disapproval from fellow competitors can mess with a driver's mind, but it also can affect cooperation on the racetrack. Although there are no restrictor-plate tracks remaining on the Chase schedule, that doesn't mean drafting and aerodynamics are no longer an issue.
Still, Johnson believes that his reputation remains unsullied and that his peers understand that what occurred at Talladega was unintentional. His only concern is remaining with the pack of Chase racers at the top of the standings.
"At the start of the Chase, and really at the start of the season, you can move around so easily in the top 10 because everything is so new and the points are so close," Johnson said. "At this point, you just really go from week to week. I know in the back of my mind that we can be leading or in fourth or in sixth and it bounces around. We need to pay attention to every point and try to hang onto them all. Before long, there will be a couple-car breakaway and some gaps from there.
"That's when the pressure really sets in and you've got to decide if you're protecting the points lead or if you need to play some offense and be aggressive and lead the most laps and really take some risks."
Take a look at the standings and you'll see a gap. Johnson remains among a seven-driver group separated by 62 points. While they wait to see where the separation forms among them, they all chase the duo at the top -- Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, separated from each other by four points and from the rest of the gang by more than 70. How will things transpire in Week 4 of the Chase? As with Johnson's reputation, time will tell.
It's only a matter of time before Stewart re-establishes the torrid pace with which he concluded the "regular," 26-race season. An 18th-place finish at Dover was his only sub-10th performance in 15 races. But after winning five events in a span of seven races, Stewart has gone winless for seven weeks.
He never has won at Kansas. However, he has won at Kansas' sister track, Chicagoland; boasts the best average finish at Kansas among all Chase contenders; and is confident because the race Sunday is back in a driver's control.
"What you do at Kansas is solely based on what you and your team can do with your race car, not what drafting line you're in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move," said Stewart, comparing Kansas with last weekend's race at Talladega. "There are too many variables out of your control in a plate race. At Kansas, we're back in control."
Riding the wave
Newman is confident for all kinds of reasons. Not only has he continued to be the only reliable top-10 finisher among the Chasers but he has been rewarded with a bit of breathing room in case he runs into a top-15 day. That kind of cushion does wonders for the pressure drivers are under -- but then again, he's a racer who thrives under pressure.
"We're not feeling any pressure, and we're not putting any pressure on ourselves," Newman said. "We said in the beginning of the Chase, 'Let's have some fun.' That's what we've been doing, and it's working so far."
History on their side
Jeremy Mayfield has a great and consistent track record at Kansas, with three top-10 finishes (including two top-fives). And although he hasn't been sizzling in the Chase, he hasn't been fizzling -- and straight down the middle might be what wins this thing. If he can add a top-five to his three top-16s, Mayfield would be in great shape.
"We're looking forward to Kansas Speedway," he said. "Evernham Motorsports as a whole has been really good on the mile-and-a-half tracks. We started third there last year and ran in the top three the majority of the race and ended up with a top-five finish."
Cause for concern
Mark Martin and Kurt Busch have the most points to make up in the Chase, and they have a challenge ahead to do so at Kansas. Martin, 138 points out, has only one top-10 at Kansas and no top-fives. Busch, 180 points out, has two top-10s and no top-fives.
Still, after going out before logging even 20 laps last weekend, Martin is just eager to get back to racing -- and happy to be at a track type where he has excelled this season.
"I'm definitely looking forward to getting back out on a 1.5 and seeing what we can do," Martin said. "Those types of tracks have been our bread and butter, and we are hoping that we can get a strong finish this weekend and see what happens from there."
In four races at Kansas, Gordon has finished first, first, fifth and 13th. Despite its recent struggles, the No. 24 team is a serious contender to be a spoiler this week.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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