Johnson Prepping for NASCAR Championship

Friday, November 14th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) _ Although Jimmie Johnson gets less publicity than Ryan Newman, he isn't concerned.

``I don't worry about getting a lot of attention,'' Johnson said. ``What we're trying to accomplish is to win races and do the best we can as a team. If people notice, that's great. If not, that's OK, too.''

Still, it would be hard not to notice what Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet team have done since reaching NASCAR's elite Winston Cup series.

A year ago, he and Newman locked up in a classic, season-long fight for the rookie title.

Johnson won four poles, three races, had 21 top 10 finishes and wound up fifth in the standings and second in the rookie points. Newman was the rookie of the year and got most of the acclaim with a win, six poles and 24 top 10 finishes that carried him to sixth in the season points.

It's been more of the same this year.

Newman went into Friday's qualifying for the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with 11 poles and eight wins _ both highs for the series. He also has 22 top 10s _ second only to newly crowned Winston Cup champion Matt Kenseth's 25. Newman is fourth in the points.

Johnson's season has been less spectacular but equally effective.

He comes to the track 25 miles south of Miami with two poles, three wins, 19 top 10s and _ most important _ is second in the standings.

His hold on second place is precarious. He's just 38 points ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., 103 in front of Newman and 137 ahead of Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate, car owner and a four-time series champion.

``Jimmie is doing a great job, but we've got an outside shot at finishing second and we're going to give it everything we have,'' Gordon said. ``The way those guys compete, though, it's going to be hard to take it away from them.''

Holding second place would mean a lot to Johnson.

``If you look at it financially, the difference from second to sixth is $920,000,'' Johnson said. ``And we set goals to try to do better than fifth place, where we finished last year.

``It's important to meet those goals to build for a championship year next year.''

Does that mean he expects to be a championship contender in 2004?

``With the way these last two years have gone, we're setting our expectations high and want to win the championship,'' Johnson said. ``We keep learning and working as a team, and that's important for the future.''

One reason Johnson doesn't draw more attention is his racing style _ steady and aggressive only when he believes he has to be. He doesn't usually knock other drivers out of the way or get into postrace name calling.

That's probably the main reason he comes into Homestead having been in the top 10 in points for 68 consecutive races _ longer than any other driver.

``I think being in the situation I'm in _ driving Hendrick Motorsports cars _ it has put me in that position,'' Johnson said. ``It's just being in great equipment, stuff that doesn't fall apart and that's competitive.''

Johnson is proud of the record he and his team have compiled in their two years together, but he came into this season with higher goals.

``I had hoped we might be in a position to possibly win the championship this year, based on our rookie year when we led the points and were a part of that whole battle,'' Johnson said. ``But, a realistic goal that we set was to try and be in the top three. Hopefully, we'll be able to do that.''