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Published: Friday, 4/28/2006

Johnson gets the point

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

In Nextel Cup racing, it is all about winning and it is about money and it is about giving the sponsor the best splash.

But ultimately, it is about the points.

Nobody understands that better than Jimmie Johnson. It's the points that get you the championship.

Johnson has finished in the top five in his four previous seasons of racing in NASCAR's highest circuit, and twice finished second in the Cup points race, just out of reach of the championship. In 2004, Johnson was only eight points behind Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch - a photo finish in a season-long race where last year's winner had more than 6,500 total points.

Johnson, who trails points leader Matt Kenseth by a mere nine going into this weekend's race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, is determined not to finish in the bridesmaid's dress again. He, more than anyone, knows the value of every point.

In that 2004 points race, the closest in NASCAR history, Johnson had a season-high eight wins and won four of the final six races. But Busch, with just three victories, was more consistent over the long haul. Had Johnson finished just two places ahead of Busch in any one of a number of races, the title would have gone to the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet.

"After the experiences of the last four years, we know a lot more about the value of being consistent, of finishing every race, and maintaining that edge throughout the season," Johnson said. "You don't win or lose the championship on one weekend. It is a long grind."

For the 30-year-old native of El Cajon, Calif., there is reason to believe he can be back on top in points when the weekend is over. Johnson, who surrendered the lead to Kenseth last Saturday at Phoenix, won the only previous race this season on a super speedway - the Daytona 500.

"I learned a lot winning the Daytona 500 and how calm you really can be and have a shot at the end of the race," Johnson said. "I am going to take those lessons I learned there and apply them at Talladega. Talladega really promotes four-wide racing, and that is a risky environment out there when that takes place."

Talladega is a restrictor-plate track - where NASCAR mandates the use of an aluminum plate with four holes drilled in it that is placed between the base of the carburetor and the engine's intake manifold. The plate reduces the flow of air and fuel into the cylinder's combustion chamber, thus decreasing horsepower and speed - a major concern on these monster-sized tracks.

There will be two major differences since Daytona for Johnson. He won't have the car he won the 500 with, since it will be on display at Daytona USA and won't be raced again in 2006. And this will be the first race with the softer bumpers NASCAR has developed in an effort to reduce the severity of bump drafting that took place at Daytona and is expected to be prevalent on Talladega's 2.66-mile track.

"It's going to be good racing," Johnson said. "We're all going to adjust to whatever the rules are and try to go out there and win the race. I think NASCAR put a good rule in place with all the bumping and side drafting that took place at Daytona. I think we should see a relatively calm race at Talladega. I feel very good about this race, obviously since we won the Daytona 500."

Kenseth, who had the points lead earlier in the season, only to lose it to Johnson before getting it back, said he expects caution to prevail at Talladega.

"Talladega is all about staying out of trouble, getting to the end, and picking the right lane at the right time," the 2003 points race winner said.

"Anytime we go to Talladega, I know it's going to be a wild race. There are some things that are out of my control, but I have to make sure that I take care of what I can and get our car to the finish, hopefully with a chance to win."

Johnson, who joins Kasey Kahne as the only drivers to win twice this season, is confident his Hendrick Motorsports racing team has been able to replicate the car that won Daytona.

"I'm excited about the new car we've had to build and take there," Johnson said. "Hopefully it will be better than what we had at the 500. The guys at the shop really document everything they built and put on the cars, all the templates and measurements and all those things. It is very scientific, which allows us to build the same car all over again."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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