Johnson will have to tiptoe through field
CONCORD, N.C. -- If Jimmie Johnson is going to win his fourth consecutive race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, he'll have to earn it.
Johnson changed the engine in his Chevrolet, a move that forfeited his third-place starting spot. He'll now have to start at the back of the pack for Saturday night's race and work his way to the front as he pursues yet another Charlotte victory. Johnson has won four of past five races at Lowe's, including three straight.
Since a 39th-place finish in his 2001 Cup debut here, Johnson has not finished lower than seventh.
"I've been waiting for our success to slow down at Charlotte," Johnson said. "There is really only one direction for us to go and that's not winning. If that happens, so be it. But I really feel comfortable and confident about our chances."
Several things are already working against Johnson, beginning with his motor blowing during one of Thursday's practice sessions. It made qualifying irrelevant because replacing the engine automatically earned him a spot at the rear of the 43-car field.
He can't afford to stay back there long -- the racing at the rear of the field is usually pretty dicey and the majority of accidents occur from the middle of the pack on back. So Johnson will be in a hurry to get himself away from danger.
"It's not a good thing to come from the back," he said. "There are a lot of risks I'll have to take to get to the front. I have to be on my toes at the start of the race."
Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team will also have to overcome their own perceptions about the capability of their car. Because of changes president Humpy Wheeler made to the track surface, crew chief Chad Knaus decided against bringing the same Chevrolet Johnson drove to a win here in May.
They instead used the car Johnson drove to a fifth-place finish at Dover, Del., three races ago. The decision is a gamble because the other car had proved to be stout at Charlotte and gave the team a psychological belief that it could not be beaten here.
"With all the races we've won, we thought [the car] was a huge part of it," Johnson said. "When we made the decision not to bring it, we've been telling ourselves it's not a big deal and this car is better."
Elliott Sadler will start from the pole and Ryan Newman, who is second in the Chase for the championship standings, is second. In all, six drivers eligible for the Nextel Cup title qualified in the top 10.
So far, it's shaping up to be Tony Stewart's title to lose. After the first four rounds of the Chase, Stewart has yet to have a horrible run and takes a 75-point lead over Newman into Saturday night's race.
Johnson, meanwhile, is mired back in fifth -- 92 points out. But he's been in this position before. In fact, everyone believed Johnson's championship hopes were over at this time last season.
Instead, he won this event to start a string a four victories in five races to claw his way back into contention. He went into the season finale as the top contender to leader Kurt Busch for the championship, but fell eight points short in the closest title race in NASCAR history.
Because of his history, Johnson isn't ready to hand the title over to Stewart just yet. He's confident the championship won't be decided until the Nov. 20 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"It's just going to be a fight all the way to Homestead once again," he said. "In my eyes, I still feel there's a lot of racing left and a lot of things can happen every race. It's about finishing in the top five, top 10 and not having really bad days.
"Hopefully we can do that and we'll just see how everybody else's life goes. With two or three to go, we'll evaluate where we are then and a little bit more then and take it from there."
Stewart, who starts fourth on Saturday night, said it won't matter to him if he wraps up the title before the Chase is over or has to go all the way to the finale to claim it -- so long as he wins his second Cup championship.
"I don't care how it gets done, I don't care if we win it by one point as long as we get it done," Stewart said. "Nobody will remember 10 or 20 years down the line how much we won it by. I'm not letting the points sheet monopolize my week."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press