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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, June 5, 2010

Auto racing: Johnson ready to get back on track at Pocono


WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer

LONG POND, Pa. Jimmie Johnson hears the buzz. It's been kind of hard to avoid during the four-time defending NASCAR champion's recent slide.

A single top-10 in five races. Two crashes. Some bad racing luck. Driver error. No victories since early spring.

Do the performances fail to meet the impossibly high standard Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports team has set for itself during its record-breaking run? Sure.

Are they proof that the cracks in Johnson's dominance are finally starting to show? Not exactly.

"You read the headlines and it's like the No. 48 team is shutting down," Johnson said.

Hardly.

Johnson sits seventh in points heading into Sunday's 500-mile race at Pocono, where he'll start 25th at the massive 2.5-mile oval. Halfway through NASCAR's regular season, it would take a series of major catastrophes for him to miss out on the Chase.

Still, even Johnson admits he's not exactly been at his coolly efficient best of late.

"I've always had that good rhythm of walking that tightrope, and you step over it from time to time," he said. "Lately I've been stepping on the wrong side of that line."

He did it twice last weekend at Charlotte, where a pair of wrecks sent retreating to the garage. He gamely headed back to the track after repairs, though the sight of Johnson running a dinged up car 35 laps behind the leaders at a place where he's won six times bordered on the bizarre.

It was just the latest in a series of mishaps that have taken some of the steam out of Johnson's start, when he won three of the first five races and filled the rest of the series with a sense of "here we go again" dread.

Yet Johnson hasn't been back to Victory Lane since taking the checkered flag at Bristol on March 21. No biggie for most drivers. A veritable lifetime for Johnson.

He won the pole at Talladega but got caught up in a wreck with six laps to go. Two weeks later at Darlington he crashed for his third DNF of the season. Things weren't much better at Dover, where he slogged to 16th. He gambled and lost at the All-Star race. Then he spent last Sunday getting too friendly with the wall at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Is he distracted? It's kind of hard not to be when you're expecting your first child.

Johnson and wife Chandra will welcome a baby girl in July and Johnson has done his best to help out at home when he can. Ask him about putting together the nursery and he lights up.

"Lots of pink," he says before struggling as most expectant fathers do to describe some of the stuffed animals that decorate the room.

He's got time to learn. And he's got plenty of time to figure things out on the track, too.

Johnson survived a similar lull last summer, when he managed just one top-10 in six races starting in Watkins Glen and ending in Richmond.

There was the 14-race winless streak in 2007. The forgettable two months in 2006 in which he didn't even crack the top 10.

All of those seasons ended in championships.

The guys trying to end his reign atop the sport say it's way too early think this year will be any different.

"There's always this stretch of four or five races every year where people kind of get concerned with the 48, how he's running," said Denny Hamlin, who sits fifth in points. "It's just that his expectations are so high, we expect him to win every other week, and the fans expect him to win every other week, and when he doesn't everyone has questions."

And Johnson knows the only way to stop the questions is to win.

Yet Victory Lane has been elusive for all four Hendrick cars since the series ditched the rear wing for the more traditional spoiler. NASCAR's super team dominated the "wing era," with Johnson winning 22 of the 93 races after it was introduced.

Those days look long gone. Joe Gibbs Racing has surged since the move back to the spoiler, while Hendrick has been somewhat pedestrian.

JGR stars Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who will start from the pole on Sunday, have won five of the eight races since the spoiler returned. Kurt Busch sent a message in Charlotte that he's ready to be a factor after sweeping the All-Star event and the 600.

In the interim, Hendrick has been spinning its wheels. The team that swept the top three spots in points last year now finds itself trying to play catchup.

Jeff Gordon has endured a series of near misses but has been a steady fourth. Mark Martin, who finished second to Johnson last year, is 10th. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 17th.

If Johnson is concerned, it doesn't show. He's too busy racing.

He zipped around the fabled Tricky Triangle for a couple of hours on Saturday morning, then hopped in a car to get to Watkins Glen in time to drive in the Six Hours at the Glen for the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series.

"I think we tend to glamorize successes," said Jeff Burton. "We think they've sat on every pole, won every race, led every lap."

To be fair, it's Johnson's fault that it only seems that way. He's made winning look so effortless, he understands why he only makes news when he doesn't.

"I think it speaks to how special the last four years have been for the No. 48 team and then also shows you how competitive this garage area really is," he said. "Just because something happened in the past doesn't mean you're going to have it happen again."