Another High Five
Jimmie Johnson's seventh top five finish in eight races put him on top of the NASCAR points standings
As Jimmie Johnson walked through the garage at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday morning, a man in his mid-50s with a radiant grin trailed in the driver's shadow. In fact, on most race weekends the soft-spoken older man, Johnson's father, Gary, is by his son's side. For the past three years Gary has driven Jimmie's motor home from track to track, traveling close to 300,000 miles across the highways of America so he can see his son race. "The best Father's Day gift I could give my dad is a win," said Johnson a few hours before the DHL 400 in Brooklyn, Mich. "He deserves it."
Johnson didn't make it to Victory Lane, but he and his dad still had reason to celebrate after the race, which was won by Ryan Newman. Johnson crossed the finish line fourth, but because Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled to a 21st-place finish, Johnson jumped past Little E to claim the season points lead. The hottest driver in NASCAR over the last two months, Johnson has had seven top five finishes in the last eight races and has led 758 of the last 2,414 laps (31.4%) in that time.
"I have 100 percent confidence in my car, my team, my abilities," Johnson says. "Those all play off one another, and that allows us to bounce back even if we have a bad week."
Johnson hasn't had many bad weeks lately. The best illustration of his recent dominance came on June 13 at Pocono Raceway. On Lap 156 of 200 he was leading the race when the caution flag came out Moments later a NASCAR official standing at the end of pit road prematurely waved the green flag, signaling that the pits were open. Johnson, at the head of the line of slowly circling cars, had already passed the pit entrance, but most of the rest of the field dived in for fuel and new tires. Though the official had clearly made an error, NASCAR took no corrective action to award Johnson the track position he had lost. It didn't matter. Though Johnson fell to sixth because of NASCAR's mistake, his Chevrolet was so powerful that he regained the lead with 26 laps left and took the checkered flag in what has been the most impressive performance of the season.
The 28-year-old Johnson, a native of El Cajon, Calif., has been running with the leaders ever since arriving on the scene in 2002. He finished fifth in points as a rookie and second last season. Asked to explain his success, Johnson always points to his tight relationship with crew chief Chad Knaus, who just may be the second-mellowest guy in the sport behind Johnson. They have performed so well together that Johnson has finished ahead of teammate and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon in 21 of the past 33 races.
"Jimmie is a special driver," says Gordon. "He'll win a championship one of these days."
That day, in fact, may be Nov. 21—the date of NASCAR's final race of 2004, in Homestead, Fla.
Finishing Under Caution
Those Yellow-Flag Blues
On June 13, Jeff Gordon blistered NASCAR for letting the Pocono 500 end under caution. On Sunday it was rookie Kasey Kahne who was wishing NASCAR wouldn't allow races to end under the yellow flag. "I don't know if I could have caught Ryan," said Kahne, who was second in the DHL 400 to Ryan Newman ( Kahne's fourth runner-up finish this year). "But it would have been a great finish."