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Published: 10/1/2011

Not giving up without a fight

Johnson tries to jump-start title defense at Dover

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Jimmie Johnson has won five straight Cup titles, but he's stalled in 10th place, 29 points behind Tony Stewart . Jimmie Johnson has won five straight Cup titles, but he's stalled in 10th place, 29 points behind Tony Stewart .
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DOVER, Del. -- Go ahead. Count out Jimmie Johnson.

After all, he's had an atypical-Johnson season.

His wins have dried up, his spot in the Sprint Cup standings is worthy of a double-take, and a run of dominance that staked his claim as one of NASCAR's all-time great champions has vanished.

The V stands for vulnerable more than victories this season when it comes to the No. 48.

No championship run lasts forever, and one year it will be Johnson's time to surrender his run atop the Cup standings. Just don't be so sure it'll be this season.

Tony Stewart has stolen the spotlight and grabbed the points lead with wins in the first two Chase races. Brad Keselowski has gone from wild-card to championship contender. Kevin Harvick is always a threat.

Johnson is still in the mix for six straight championships and can start to make a serious move in the standings at one his favorite tracks, Dover International Speedway. He's tamed the Monster Mile like few other drivers in the sport ever have. He has six career victories on the concrete track and won the race here last September. Johnson has a sparkling 9.6 average finish in 19 career Cup starts at Dover.

The rush to finally anoint a new champ might stall if Johnson can capture another checkered flag Sunday.

"I don't think we're looking for the walk-off home run by any means right now," Johnson said. "It's just finishing where we should."

Johnson hasn't finished where he expected to place in the first two Chase races, one reason why he's lurking in 10th place and 29 points behind Stewart. That gap is far from insurmountable -- even with the revamped system -- for a driver like Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team.

Johnson spent Friday taking questions about "sense of urgency" and "pressure," terms and feelings he hasn't experienced much of this early in the Chase since he won his first championship in 2006. Johnson acknowledged he's feeling his share of pressure to start delivering better results over the final eight races.

"Pressure is everywhere," he said. "These final 10 races, take that whole pressure scale and multiply it by some crazy number. Pressure is everywhere for every team."

Obviously, Johnson feels that way. He wouldn't be one of the more decorated active athletes if he didn't put pressure on himself to succeed -- and then deliver a championship run like no other driver in NASCAR history.

The reality is, there's less pressure on Johnson to win than on any of the other 11 Chase drivers.

He has his championships and his place in history. Johnson will always be a threat to contend at Hendrick, and he doesn't have to worry about a now-or-never attitude to win a title before his career is over.

Johnson's legacy won't be affected one bit if he fails to win the championship this season.

That doesn't mean he won't work like a mad man to hang onto his crown for another year.

"We're doing all we can, I promise you," Johnson said. "Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports is giving us all that they have. My No. 48 team is committed and focused on doing the best job they can, and I am as well."

Cool as always, Johnson brushed off speculation that there is any tension brewing between him and crew chief Chad Knaus. When Johnson struggled last week at New Hampshire, he chirped over the radio that Knaus' cheerleading was "annoying" and ordered him to stop.

Johnson said that kind of interaction has been part of their relationship since they were paired together in 2002. When the typical top-five finishes aren't there, those terse conversations become magnified.

Johnson said it was such a nonissue, the two hadn't bothered to talk about it this week at the shop.

"It wasn't our finest moment on Sunday, but it's what we deal with," he said. "It's been part of what we've been dealing with for 10 years."

Other championship contenders hope it's a crack in what's been a flawless program and a sure sign new champ is on the way.

"I'd like to think we're the guys that can end it," Kyle Busch said.

Keselowski cautioned it was too early to discount Johnson, but "I don't think it looks all that good."

 

Kentucky Speedway back in the spotlight

SPARTA, Ky. -- It would be fair to call the inaugural Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway a debacle.

That description makes general manager Mark Simendinger wince.

But he doesn't deny there's little room to soften just how bad things were on July 9.

"The fact is, we blew it," Simendinger said Friday.

After waiting 10 years to land a coveted Sprint Cup race, the entire region eagerly anticipated what was supposed to be a spectacular debut at a facility new track owner Bruton Smith spent millions on to make it a worthy host.

But as the 107,000-plus fans approached speedway property, officials quickly realized there wasn't enough parking and the access roads couldn't adequately handle the crush. The result was a traffic jam that stretched for miles and lasted so long, many fans never made it to the speedway.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company that owns the track, went to work in the days after the race to fix the issues, and Kentucky Speedway gets its first chance to redeem itself since this weekend. NASCAR's Trucks Series races tonight at the speedway, and the IndyCar Series runs Sunday.

The crowds will be a fraction of what descended on the speedway in July, and temperatures expected to hover in the 50s all weekend will likely discourage much of a walk-up crowd. But Simendinger and his Kentucky staff are determined to prove at every chance possible that there will never be a repeat of what happened 2 1/2 months ago.

"We had a bunch of disaffected and disappointed customers, and that's a major, major problem," Simendinger said. "There are a lot of ways to fix that, but the reality is the only remedy that would satisfy many people is if I could go back and get them out of traffic. I can't do that, so the job now is to convince people to come back and to trust us that we can handle the kind of crowds this place is built for."



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