Jimmie Johnson Back in Nextel Title Race

Thursday, November 4th 2004, 7:53 pm
By: News On 6

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) _ An age-old NASCAR lesson has helped Jimmie Johnson to three straight victories and boosted the fourth-year Nextel Cup driver back into the championships picture with just three races remaining.

``Knowing how long our races are, having patience at the beginning of the race and continuing to work on the race car and communicate and not get frustrated has been the key,'' Johnson said. ``We've had to work on our cars each and every race in the last three that we've won and we got it right at the end when it counted.

``It's a lesson we've been through before but, for whatever reason, certain lessons keep surfacing: If we're not the best car in the beginning, it doesn't matter. You just keep working on it.''

The consecutive victories at Charlotte, Martinsville and Atlanta have brought Johnson charging back from ninth-place, 247 points off the lead after crashing in the Kansas race on Oct. 10, to second, just 59 points behind Kurt Busch.

Johnson isn't dwelling on his recent success, though. He'd prefer to look ahead.

``It's not my style to sit and talk about what we've accomplished. If we're not paying attention to what took place or where we're at, things always work out better for us,'' Johnson said. ``So, it's been a great run of races. We'll just keep plugging away.''

A victory Sunday in the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway would make Johnson the first driver to win four in a row since teammate, friend and car owner Jeff Gordon did it in 1998.

Johnson's charge, combined with the first slip by Busch since the 10-race Chase began, has injected some real drama back into NASCAR's new championship format.

Thanks to Busch's blown engine at Atlanta, where he wound up 42nd _ the first time he finished outside the top six since the Chase began _ the top five drivers are bunched within 98 points with only Phoenix, Darlington and Homestead remaining on the schedule.

Four-time champion Gordon, four-time series runner-up Mark Martin and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., who beat Johnson in last year's race, all remain solidly in the hunt coming to Phoenix, where there have been 14 winners in the 16 years that NASCAR has raced there. Only the late Davey Allison (1991 and 1992) and Jeff Burton (2000 and 2001) have won more than once on the one-mile oval.

Gordon, who has wins at 19 of the 23 tracks currently on the Cup schedule, has never won at Phoenix.

``We always seem to run well, here,'' he said. ``We just haven't closed the deal.''

Gordon trails Busch by 72 points but a win Sunday could go a long way toward earning him a fifth championship.

``The opportunity is still there, we just need to take advantage of it,'' Gordon said. ``I love to see that No. 48 team doing so well but, as a competitor, we need to stop his momentum and gain some of our own. The best way to do that is to win this weekend.''

Busch hopes to have something to say about that, too.

``We stumbled this past week, but we've got three more to go and they're great race tracks for us,'' he said.