Johnson unfazed by race-day task


HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- All that remains is to run the race.

Neither points leader Tony Stewart nor Jimmie Johnson, who trails Stewart by 52 points in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, had particularly productive qualifying runs Saturday in Homestead, Fla. Stewart will make his bid for a second title starting from the 20th position. Johnson will try to break his string of two straight runner-up finishes while starting 32nd.

Although it may appear Johnson is at a disadvantage, consider this: Stewart and Co. have built and brought a reliable No. 20 car made for a consistent finish; Johnson and Co. have put together a car designed to win. The jaunt from the back to the front might be easier for a car bent on being up front.

"Where we are right now -- we started with a provisional last year, worked our way up and finished second," Johnson said. "So, I feel very good about it. I know this racetrack. I would prefer to start further up than where I am, but it is what it is and we'll just go out there and get to work. It's going to be a long 400 miles."

Made all the longer by the fact that Johnson will have one eye on getting to the front and another eye on where Stewart lurks.

That's a luxury Stewart has. He knows that if he stays among the top-nine cars in the field, it makes no difference where Johnson's No. 48 is running. Ninth place and Stewart clinches. Tenth, and the door is slightly ajar.

"It's just like I told the guys today, just have fun," Stewart said. "Just relax and have a good time because that's what this weekend is about for us. So, we don't have to create magic this weekend, we just have to go out and have a solid performance and the rest of it will take care of itself."

Stewart is convinced that his situation is far better than Johnson's, as well as Carl Edwards' -- who won the pole for Sunday's race and sits 83 points behind Stewart. He believes his experience and shallow padding are enough to give him the advantage.

"We've been through this deal once before," he said. "We kind of know what to expect. We're not controlling the whole Chase, but we are controlling the side of it that we can, and that's with our car. That's what made it so easy for us.

"You look at the other teams and they're all focusing on what we're doing. We like that. We want them to do that. That lets us focus on what we're doing and not on what they're doing."

But that reasoning, perhaps true in the past, proves false now. Johnson may be keeping an eye on Stewart come Sunday, but his focus is on winning. That may be his only chance of taking the title unless Stewart wrecks, blows a tire or has a mechanical failure.

His central focus is evident upon first look. He's appears calm. He's collected. He's determined.

"I'm proud of the team -- we've been in championship contention for three years so far in our career at the Cup level," Johnson said. "To win the championship is what we're here for and coming so close last year, there's really nowhere else to go in our mind than up to win the championship.

"So, we're here for one thing tomorrow, and that one thing is to win a championship."

That Johnson and Stewart will start from the back is not devastating to either's hopes. Stewart came from the back to the front in this race last year. Johnson started almost at the very end of the line last year and worked his way up to as high as second.

Both have become comfortable at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Stewart has two victories there, but both came when the track was in its original condition -- flat in the turns. As of last year, the turns are banked. Still, each has led laps at a banked Homestead.

Sunday, Johnson knows he needs to add to that total. And he feels optimistic.

"Our chances are good," he said. "Ideally we'd like to win the race and lead the most laps."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.