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Fontana's the perfect place for Johnson to find his groove

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Mar. 24, 2012

Jimmie Johnson has his points back. Is his mojo the next to return?

There would certainly be no better place for the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion to make his first visit to Victory Lane this season than Sunday's Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, where Johnson has five wins and has won four of the last eight races.

The home track for the El Cajon, Calif., native has been good for him during his Cup career, and was the site of his first series victory in 2002.

Although his string of five consecutive championships was snapped last season by Tony Stewart, Johnson was a preseason favorite to claim his sixth title in 2012.

The 25-point penalty for a rule infraction at the Daytona 500, combined with a 42nd-place finish in the race, left him in an enormous hole after the season opener.

Now that NASCAR's chief appellate officer, John Middlebrook, restored Johnson's points last week and rescinded the crew suspensions, he is in a much better points position – and frame of mind – to proceed with the championship quest.

"We can go back to racing - and, really, my focus all along has been on the racing regardless of what took place in Daytona, the appeal process and the weeks that followed," said Johnson, who is now 11th in the series standings, 36 behind leader Greg Biffle. "To me, it's been all about getting on the race track and doing the best job I can and collect as many points as I can and ideally win a race or two.

"I think two (wins) is that safe spot for locking into the Chase and with my points back I have the same philosophy. I want to get two wins to lock in."

Even facing the steep points deficit since Daytona, Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports performed well over the last three weeks to improve their position significantly.

Johnson finished fourth, second and ninth since his dismal day at Daytona. Even with that stellar run, the potential of losing Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, and car chief, Ron Malec, for multiple races would have been damaging.

"The disruption, if we were to lose Chad and Ron would have been huge for our team and any team," Johnson said. "Although we have a lot of depth and felt like we would survive, you don't want to go to the race track without your crew chief and car chief."

Knaus, too, is ready to put the penalty in the rear-view mirror.

"I'm stoked and exited and couldn't wait to get to Fontana," he said. "I think we've done a pretty good job of getting back the 25 points even before we got the gift of giving them back (from the appeal). "I think that shows the strength of the No. 48 team."

Asked how important it was to get the 25 points back on the appeal, Knaus said, "Obviously very important. You want to be in the Top 10 and battle and be in the mix but I feel we were going to get there one way or the other."

With his team intact, Johnson comes to Auto Club Speedway in excellent position to cash in on one of the victories he craves.

He was in the mix to win the last two races, winning in 2010 but losing to Kevin Harvick last season on a last-lap pass.

Johnson has finished no worse than eighth in his past nine races at the track and has completed every lap of every race in his 17 career starts. His first series win in 2002 remains his favorite.

"That was everything to me and my career," Johnson said. "I knew driving Jeff's (Gordon) equipment that, if I didn't win after he came off a championship season and basically handed me his cars, I was going to be in trouble."

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