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Gordon, Johnson Ready For Title Fight

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) _ Searching for an escape from their race to the Nextel Cup title, teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon headed to Mexico for a little rest and relaxation.

Both championship contenders planned to use their short _ and separate _ vacations to recharge before heading to Phoenix International Raceway and resume the title chase. Racing, and the tense battle between two good friends, was the farthest thing from their minds.

They never expected to run into each other, but did when Gordon spotted Johnson having lunch. Traveling with his wife and infant daughter, Gordon pulled the car over for a brief visit with Johnson and his wife.

``We're sitting at a beach bar, relaxing and having a fun lunch and in the door walk Ingrid and Jeff,'' said Johnson, who was coming off of Sunday's win at Texas.

``We're like 'We're all the way down here and what are the chances of running into each other in this little tiny beach bar?' It was quite funny.''

Gordon said the conversation was light.

``It wasn't like we sat down and reminisced about his win in Texas,'' Gordon joked. ``I congratulated him again, said 'Hello' and talked.''

Then they went their separate ways, coming together again in Phoenix for what could be a critical race in their title hunts.

Johnson, the defending Nextel Cup champion, takes a 30-point lead over Gordon into Sunday's race and starts sixth. Gordon, the four-time series champion, will start third.

Neither driver is outstanding in the desert, with Gordon's win here in April his first in 17 career starts. Johnson was a career-best second in this race last year.

The title can't be mathematically clinched on Sunday, but Johnson can certainly put it out of reach. The record books indicate the celebration should already begin.

Since 1972, when NASCAR's schedule moved into its current format, only two drivers have overcome margins of 30 or more points with two races to go. Alan Kulwicki did it in 1992, overcoming an 80-point deficit to Bill Elliott to win the title, and Dale Earnhardt rallied from 45 down to pass Mark Martin in 1990.

Johnson, with nine wins this season _ including three-straight _ is quite comfortable with his position.

``At this stage of the game, you want to be leading,'' Johnson said. ``With the few races that we have left, I think it's better to be on top and trying to control it if at all possible. Right now I'm glad to be leading. There's not a lot of time left.''

Gordon, a six-time winner this year, knows he has his work cut out for him. His team was off in Texas last week, when he finished seventh and lost the points lead following Johnson's win. He said his crew also missed the setup the week before in Atlanta.

With an entire season hanging in the balance, Gordon said there's no room for error the rest of the way.

``We can't get outside the limits or we're going to find ourselves further behind, not making ground up or getting ahead,'' Gordon said.

But should he have any questions, he and crew chief Steve Letarte know they can turn to Johnson's notes for answers. An open-book policy at Hendrick has the two championship contenders sharing resources and information, and if there's any animosity between the teammates, they don't let it show.

They race each other hard on the track, then celebrate the other's success in Victory Lane.

``Jeff is a great friend and great teammate, but he's also the most challenging guy out there for me to beat,'' Johnson said. ``And that's with all the respect in the world. But I don't feel bad for him, and I know he wouldn't, either.

``If something happened where he had bad luck and we ended up winning the championship, that's where I would feel bad. But the fact that we are racing as hard as we are for it right now, it's racing.''

Gordon said their friendship is unique, and its what makes it possible for the two of them to go down to the wire without any hurt feelings.

``I don't think two people could handle that situation better than he and I do,'' Gordon said. ``We get along good, we understand how competitive one another is and in a situation like this, it's not that we want to go hide from one another, but we don't want to hang out 24-7.

``It's a good balance, and when we run into one another, it's not awkward. I am happy for him, he's happy for me, but we also know how bad we want it for ourselves and our teams. I think we have a great understanding of that so it doesn't create any real tension there.''
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