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Johnson hopes for rare NASCAR repeat

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POSTED: February 17, 2007 5:06 a.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson was the clear favorite to win last season’s Nextel Cup championship, an easy pick after coming so very close so many times before.
This year’s pick isn’t nearly as obvious, with 50 drivers revving their motors in pursuit of dethroning NASCAR’s newest champion. Jeff Gordon wants a fifth Nextel Cup title. Tony Stewart is fired up after missing last year’s Chase, and Matt Kenseth’s goal is to win a second title, this time under a new points system.
But no matter how you break it down, the championship is Johnson’s to lose.
“It’s hard to win one, much less back to back, and to do anything twice in a row is tough,” said Stewart, who won titles in 2002 and 2005. “I can go to Vegas and put a whole bunch of money on a number, and to have it hit once is something, but to come back again and have it hit again.”
Only seven drivers have won consecutive Cup titles — none since Gordon in 1997 and 1998.
Even though the odds are clearly against him, Johnson plans to make a full-speed run at title No. 2.
“I am a race car driver, and I want to win championships,” he said. “I always wanted to win one, and now I’ve got it. That whole experience makes you hungry and want to come back and do it again.
“I feel with the team and everything that we have (at Hendrick Motorsports), we could be a contender for a few more of these.”
Johnson has every reason to believe he can do it again, because his 2006 title was no fluke. Since entering the Nextel Cup Series five years ago, Johnson consistently has been among NASCAR’s top drivers.
The No. 48 team never has been lower than fifth in the standings and was twice runner-up in the championship. That earned Johnson the dubious distinction of being the Peyton Manning of NASCAR — the guy who dominated the regular season, only to come up short when everything was on the line.
When Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus finally cleared that final hurdle last November, overcoming a disastrous start to the Chase, Johnson was freed of that label.
“A lot was said that they might not be able to win it, and Jimmie couldn’t get it if he didn’t get it last year,” car owner Rick Hendrick said. “Well, he did. I think a lot of the pressure is off. The pressure now is not to prove he can be a champion. The pressure is on himself to come back and be in the hunt again.”
It again starts with Knaus, who learned valuable lessons last season. First, he realized he had to back off just a bit to sustain the energy and drive Johnson needed over the long 36-race season.
Knaus also learned to delegate but had trouble easing up initially. When he was caught cheating during Daytona 500 preparations, a four-week suspension forced Knaus to slow down. With the crew chief watching from home, Johnson rallied to win at Daytona and again in Las Vegas two weeks later.
When Knaus returned to the track, he was able to maintain an even pace the rest of the year.
Now, his challenge will be allowing his guys to celebrate last season’s success without losing the intensity that made them champions.
“You have to give the guys an opportunity to go out there and soak it in and feel a sense of accomplishment,” Knaus said. “Because if they are working continuously and they don’t get any type of reward for what they have done, they are going to feel like ‘Why am I applying myself and working myself to death for nothing?’
 

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