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Johnson looks to regain edge

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Oct. 12, 2012

Jimmie Johnson was once nearly unbeatable at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

From 2003 to 2005, Johnson won five of the six points races contested at CMS. If he wasn’t in the lead, you were surprised.

Johnson needs to regain that mojo Saturday night in the Bank of America 500. He ranks second in points in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship as the midway point of NASCAR’s playoffs arrives – but leader Brad Keselowski has a 14-point margin and a lot of momentum.

Johnson starts fifth Saturday night as he tries to gain ground in his quest for his sixth series championship in the past seven years. CMS remains one of his favorite tracks – he won the non-points all-star race in May and has finished in the top 10 at CMS 63.6 percent of the time. But Keselowski has also been very good on 1.5-mile tracks this season.

“I think we’ll be real competitive,” Johnson said. “We had an advantage with the old [CMS track] surface. Then they ground it and we were still on top of things, and then the repaving was really a great equalizer…. We really hope to be back to our winning ways here too and this would be a good time to have that happen.”

Johnson is in a familiar position as the driver for Hendrick Motorsports with the best chance to win the championship. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the best Hendrick finisher for much of the regular season, but Earnhardt Jr. is now out for two races with a concussion. That reminded Johnson of one of the scarier moments from his own concussion in 2000.

“When I had the brakes go out at Watkins Glen, I had one [concussion] following that,” Johnson said. “I literally got in my truck and was going to drive to the race shop. And I got on I-77 and went north – I should have gone south – and ended up at Interstate 40 before I realized like, ‘Where am I going?’ ”

Nicknamed “Five-Time” for his five titles, Johnson would like to make people change that sobriquet. During four of his five title runs, he came out of the October Charlotte race either No. 1 or No. 2 in the points race. “I’ve had some quick starts and I’ve had some really slow starts and have won both ways,” said Johnson, who was also seventh coming out of Charlotte in 2006 but won the title.

When I hear Johnson talk, sometimes I am reminded of tennis star Roger Federer. Both are supremely confident and don’t try to hide it, but both are so likable and have won so many titles that they aren’t considered egotistical.

Johnson, 37, makes the Chase every year, contends every year and wins it most years. This year won’t be any different. Keselowski doesn’t seem the type to be watching his rear-view mirror, but Johnson isn’t going away. He knows he likely won’t make up 14 points in a single race, but he hopes that by the Martinsville race on Oct. 28 – where Johnson traditionally runs better than Keselowski – he will have significantly cut into the deficit.

When asked if he was shocked Keselowski leads the field with six races to go, Johnson said: “I’m not shocked. But if you asked me before the Chase started who would be leading at the halfway mark, I would put [Keselowski’s No. 2 car] in the mix, but I wouldn’t put them out front. To me, I kind of look at veterans. I would put Jeff Gordon up in there…. Guys that have won championships, I always see first. I would have expected Tony (Stewart) to be up there a little higher, too, at this point. So, it’s nothing against the No. 2 (Keselowski) by any means, but the way my mind works, when you get into these 10 races and the pressure really kicks in, I first look at previous champions and then guys that have been there in the fire.”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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