Johnson defends win at California

Posted: Friday, April 25, 2003

FONTANA, Calif. Success for Jimmie Johnson is rooted in his consistency.

Heading into Sunday's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway, where he won last April, Johnson is riding a streak of 42 consecutive races in which he has been in the top 10 in the Winston Cup points.

That string began with the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March 2002.

I didn't realize that stat until a race or two ago when somebody brought it up,'' Johnson said. But I've been very lucky throughout my career to be able to be consistent and to compete for championships and to have that consistency in all forms of racing that I've been in.

I think it's been kind of my style.''

It didn't take Johnson long to show that style in NASCAR's top stock car circuit. The win last year on the two-mile California oval was the first of three in his rookie season, a year in which he also won four poles, had 21 top-10 finishes and wound up fifth in the points standings.

So far this season, the 27-year-old Californian has five top-10 finishes in nine races and is fourth in the points, just behind his car owner and mentor, Jeff Gordon.

Johnson's best finish was third in the season-opening Daytona 500 and he has watched nine other drivers win races so far this year, including Gordon two weeks ago in Martinsville, Va.

It's great to see the parity in our sport,'' Johnson said. Different makes are winning. Different teams are winning. There's just been a lot of action and a lot going on.''

Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet has been right in the middle of that action.

This year, out of the box, we've been in contention to win four or five races,'' he said. We've had two engine failures late (in races), a couple of spins late. We've had some crazy stuff happening to us that has taken us out of race wins.

But looking at last year's schedule and where we were at going into Fontana versus this year, we are so much further ahead. ... Where we were as a race team and how competitive we are (now), I think we'll be able to keep stepping it up.''

Johnson's only other experience as defending winner of a Winston Cup race was a good one.

At Dover last year, we were able to come back and repeat,'' he said. We were able to step up and do it. I hope we're able to come back to California and do it.

But, it's a long year and a lot has changed since then.''

The biggest change has been NASCAR's requirement that all cars have to fit a set of common templates when they go through inspection. That has given the teams far less room for innovation in aerodynamics and has also evened up the competition.

We're back here with our new-style race car,'' Johnson explained. Our technology has changed so much in the setups in the race cars from when were here last year that nothing will be the same this time.

So, as much as being the defending champion, you'd think that would help you and give you the and team the confidence to come back, but we've got to go back out and rebuild our race car.''

Still, there's something that Johnson loves about tracks like California Speedway.

It seems like a mile and a half and two-mile race tracks from (Las) Vegas to Michigan we're always competitive,'' he said. When you're out there running fast and passing good cars and racing for the lead each week on this style of track, you look forward to those on the schedule.''

Practice begins Friday morning with qualifying for the 43-car field late in the day.



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