On the eve of the final Winston Cup race

On the eve of the final Winston Cup race

When Matt Kenseth claimed the 2003 Winston Cup championship last Sunday at Rockingham, he made official what most of the competitors on the circuit have known for months. Everyone else is running for second place. Matt Kenseth and Jimmie...

When Matt Kenseth claimed the 2003 Winston Cup championship last Sunday at Rockingham, he made official what most of the competitors on the circuit have known for months. Everyone else is running for second place.

Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.
Photo by Tony Johns.
For sophomore driver Jimmie Johnson, that's a goal that he'd like to achieve Sunday in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

"Realistically our goal was to finish in the top-three," says Johnson, who was edged by Ryan Newman in the rookie-of-the-year quest in 2002. "Luckily, we've given ourselves a chance to achieve that goal this weekend."

Johnson leads Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 38 points for the runner-up spot. He has finished in the top-3 in each of the past five races and jumped from fifth in the championship standings four weeks ago.

"Last year, none of us had ever been in a situation where there was so much pressure and so much on the line. I don't think we knew how to handle it," says Johnson, who managed one top-10 finish in the final four races of 2002. "We are in a much better mindset this year as a team and I think it shows by our performance down the stretch."

Johnson is the only driver that has held a top-10 spot in the standings throughout the season. In fact, the El Cajon, California native has been in the top-10 since March 2002, a string of 69 straight races.

"I think being in the situation I'm in - driving a Hendrick Motorsports car - is what has put me in that position," Johnson says. "Mostly just being in great equipment, stuff that doesn't fall apart and that's competitive is important."

Johnson got off to a fast start to the 2003 season, posting third and eighth place finishes at Daytona and Rockingham respectively. He has three wins and 19 top-10 finishes this year and has finished outside of the top-20 on just five occasions. He is bordering on the level of consistency that won the championship for Kenseth and the #17 team.

"With the way these last two years have gone, we're setting our expectations high and want to win the championship," Johnson admits. "It takes a whole year. You have to come out the first race of the year and have things go your way. Matt Kenseth has been fast and he's been consistent, but he's also had a lot of fortunate breaks. Everything has to be just right and everything has to be just perfect. Hopefully everything will be lined up for us next year."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
Johnson has some company near the top of the standings. In addition to Dale Jr., who will have his best career finish this season, Ryan Newman has made an impressive charge during the past couple of months. He leads the series with eight wins and was the fastest car in happy hour on Saturday at the newly reconfigured speedway.

"We've had an up and down year, but fought our way back into a close points battle," said Newman, who is 103 points behind Johnson and 65 behind Earnhardt. "The consistency was missing for a while, but we got it going in the second half of the season. I'm hoping for a great weekend to cap off the great year we've had."

Earnhardt has top-10 finishes in four of the past five races, including a win at Phoenix two weeks ago. A 13th place run last week dropped him to third in the championship standings.

"I'm really proud of how far we've come and how many career best marks we've already set this season," Earnhardt says. "No matter what happens Sunday, it has been a great year for this team. We're going to do all we can to grab second place in the points by the time the race ends, so we're completely focused."

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Matt Kenseth , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson