Hot Johnson keeps cool at Pocono

Posted: Monday, June 14, 2004

LONG POND, Pa. Jimmie Johnson was the picture of cool after his trip to Victory Lane, mugging for cameras, swigging champagne and using a little math to figure out how close he was to the points lead.

He hardly looked like a driver who almost had a win pulled out from under him.

Johnson used a near-flawless performance to overcome a NASCAR mistake and won another caution-filled race Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

''We were just fast all the way through,'' Johnson said. ''The pit stops were fast, the race car was fast, the driver was fast.''

Johnson controlled most of the Pocono 500 for his second win in three weeks, third this year and ninth of his career. He's led 820 miles in the last three races and has two more seconds in his last five.

Johnson put aside a disappointing 32nd-place finish last week at Dover, when he was one of the many causalities of a 19-car pileup that led to several caution rules changes for this race.

At Pocono, he was almost a victim of NASCAR's ever-changing, and often confusing, rules.

The pit road official opened the service lane one lap too early during a late caution period. As a result, Johnson, the leader, was unable to pit while most of the cars behind him did. He had to pit later and it cost him the front spot on the restart.

Instead of penalizing the violators, NASCAR let the field stand. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus said they never received an explanation from NASCAR.

Johnson, though, raced his way back to the front, then built on his lead on several late restarts on the 2 1/2-mile triangular track. He led 126 of the 200 laps and took the lead for good on lap 174.

Still, the pit road mix-up bothered Johnson.

''Fortunately, we didn't lose the race over it, but I was very upset at the time that things weren't corrected to give us the track position back,'' Johnson said.

Jeremy Mayfield, who has two of his three career victories at Pocono, finished second. He pushed Johnson hard inside and was about a car-length behind when another yellow flag came out with three laps left.

Mayfield said the cautions had little affect on the finish.

''The best car won the race today,'' he said. ''It would be different if somebody who hadn't been running up front all day won.''

Bobby Labonte, who won the 1999 Pocono 500 and the 1999 and 2001 Pennsylvania 500, was third.

After only three cautions in the first 100 laps, there were eight in the last 100. The most notable came when Rusty Wallace hit Michael Waltrip and sent him into the wall. Both drivers were knocked out and Waltrip was furious.

''I am just amazed that somebody could do something that stupid,'' Waltrip said.

The race ended under caution because Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton blew engines.

The 11 caution flags equaled the 11 last week. NASCAR president Mike Helton promised changes and explained several new rules to the drivers at the pre-race meeting. There was still plenty of confusion, both by the drivers and officials.

Under a new rule for this weekend, pit road would open for the first time under caution when the race leader passed the pits for the second time. Previously, the pits were closed until the pace car passed the entrance to pit road.

On Sunday, before Johnson reached the pit road entrance once, a NASCAR official waved a green flag and several cars headed toward the pits.

Only Johnson, Terry Labonte and Jamie McMurray stayed on the track and followed the new rule correctly during the pit confusion.

''The green flag was out when Jimmie went by, but it was out at the wrong time,'' Helton said. ''As soon as we realized there had been a mistake, we opened it back up for the lead cars a second time. We realized quickly there was no fix for a mistake on our part.''

Eventually, though, everything worked out for Johnson.

Johnson now seems primed to make a serious run at points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt came into the race with a 98-point lead in the standings, but finished sixth and saw his lead over Johnson cut to 58.

''It's hard to get too confident,'' Johnson said. ''We should be one of the teams that could be competing for the championship. It's something we really want to do. We've had two great seasons and were building for a championship year.''

Johnson's performance at Dover was only his fourth finish out of the top-10 this year. He also won at Darlington and had consecutive second-place finishes leading up to his dominant performance at the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte.

''The one in Charlotte was pretty good, but this one was right there with it,'' Johnson said.

Jeff Gordon was fourth and Kurt Busch fifth.

Ryan Newman also challenged Johnson for most of the second half of the race until Robby Gordon got loose and smacked him flush on the left side. Newman's car limped to pit road, his car smoking.

But it's Johnson who's the hottest driver in NASCAR.

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