Johnson looking to repeat Championship

Chasing the Championship: Johnson looking for a repeat performance Jimmie Johnson doesn't need to look any further than his own garage for his inspiration to join an elite club among NASCAR drivers. If the California native can hold his...

Chasing the Championship: Johnson looking for a repeat performance

Jimmie Johnson doesn't need to look any further than his own garage for his inspiration to join an elite club among NASCAR drivers.

If the California native can hold his spot at the top of the standings through the 10-race Chase for the Championship, he would join the selected company of his teammate and mentor Jeff Gordon, along with greats Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Sr. as the only drivers to win consecutive championships in NASCAR's top division.

Johnson surges into the 2007 Chase for the Championship with consecutive wins in California and Richmond. He was sixth in the Championship standings one week ago, but jumped to the top spot to lead off the Chase based on his series-high six wins this season.

"It's a great feeling to be able to go into the Chase leading the points," said Johnson, who also won at Las Vegas, Atlanta, Martinsville and the spring race at Richmond during the first 26 races of the season. "That's something you obviously want to do, not only from the points standpoint but from a psychological standpoint it's a benefit for sure. The guys have done a great job and worked very hard and upheld the standard of this team throughout the summer."

Johnson hopes that his momentum will help him jump out to a quick start in the Chase, starting with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway on Sunday (1:00 p.m. ET on ABC).

"Really the racetracks coming up on the schedule are great tracks for me," said Johnson, who swept the races at New Hampshire in 2003 and finished fifth here in July. "I know they're really strong tracks for Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and a lot of these guys that should be fighting for the championship. I really don't have a clear cut strategy. It's more about getting in my own head. Getting in my own world and putting together the best ten races that I can and that my team can."

Johnson desperately wants to win another championship, but knows that his work is cut out for him this year. Since Gordon won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998, no defending champion has finished better than fourth the following season.

"It's a really stout field," said Johnson, who has finished in the top five in the standings in each of his first five seasons in the Nextel Cup Series. "You see a lot of teams hit their stride. This is going to be the most competitive Chase we've seen. I just want to be strong and steady and start knocking down Top-5s and hopefully we can accomplish what we want to at that point."

The first two champions under the new Chase format were Kurt Busch, who finished 10th after winning in 2004 and Stewart, who missed the Chase and finished 11th last year after winning the championship in 2005.

"I don't think getting the end result is going to get any easier," said Johnson, who didn't get a top-10 finish in the first four races of the Chase last year, but finished strong with five straight top-two finishes before clinching the championship with a ninth-place run at Homestead. "But I think my mental strength is much greater than what it was last year. I think the team is stronger. We've been there and we can fight through this, you don't have to have a perfect final 10, (just) stay focused on the right things, the championship could be there."

Johnson has been on a hot streak lately, winning two straight races and finishing in the top-five in five of the past six events. But despite his recent spike, Johnson expects Gordon to be the man to beat for the Championship this year.

"I guess in my mind I still feel like Jeff had such a great year that, he's probably the guy to keep our eyes on the most," Johnson said about his teammate, who had built up a 317 point lead on second place before the drivers were re-seeded for the Chase. "We need to stay aggressive. We need to continue to do the things that the 48 does best and not get off our game. So mentally I think we're just keeping that same mindset."

Cut to the Chase: New Hampshire International Speedway (Chase Race 1 of 10)

1. Jimmie Johnson (5,060 points) -- Johnson is a two-time winner at New Hampshire and finished fifth here in July. He got the biggest lift from NASCAR's new emphasis on winning races, jumping from sixth in the points last week to first this week based on leading the series with six wins.

2. Jeff Gordon (20 points behind the leader) -- He starts the final 10-race segment behind his teammate, but Gordon has to be considered the favorite to win the championship based on the first 26 races of the season. Gordon leads all active drivers with four championships and is looking for his first under the new format to tie him with the late Dale Earnhardt. He is a three-time winner at New Hampshire and finished second in the July race. Gordon is making his 500th career start this weekend.

3. Tony Stewart (30 points behind the leader) -- Stewart has enjoyed a consistent season that included three wins in a four-race segment in the summer. He finished 12th here in July, but has a pair of New Hampshire wins under his belt. Stewart already has two championships, including 2005 under the Chase format. He will easily handle the pressure of being in the championship playoff.

4. Carl Edwards (40 points behind the leader) -- Edwards has sights set on becoming the first driver in history to win the Cup and Busch Series championships in the same season. His best New Hampshire finish was second in 2006.

5. Kurt Busch (40 points behind the leader) -- Busch swept both races in New Hampshire in 2004 on his way to claiming the first Nextel Cup Championship. He finished 21st here in July in his first race with new crew chief Pat Tryson. They peeled off 11th place or better finishes in the next nine races.

6. Denny Hamlin (50 points behind the leader) -- Hamlin made the Chase after finishing third as a rookie last year. He finished fourth in this race last year and won here in July.

7. Martin Truex Jr. (50 points behind the leader) -- His third place finish here in July was Truex's fourth top-three finish in a five race stretch that helped propel him into the Chase.

8. Matt Kenseth (50 points behind the leader) -- Dropped from third to fifth in two weeks and then slipped to eighth after the cut-off last weekend. Former champion has 10 top-10 finishes in 15 Loudon starts.

9. Kyle Busch (50 points behind the leader) -- Busch won here in 2006 and had a good car in July but slipped to 11th by the time the checkers flew. He has been a strong qualifier lately.

10. Jeff Burton (50 points behind the leader) -- Burton leads all drivers with four career New Hampshire wins. He was seventh here in July and has a great opportunity to jump up the standings this week.

11. Kevin Harvick (60 points behind the leader) -- Harvick won this race last year and followed up with an eighth place run in July. He managed just one top-10 finish (last week at Richmond) in the final six races before the Chase.

12. Clint Bowyer (60 points behind the leader) -- Bowyer is the only driver in the Chase without a win. He finished 37th here in July but his sixth place run in the Busch race indicates that he knows how to get around this track.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Darrell Waltrip , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Richard Petty , Martin Truex Jr. , Carl Edwards , Clint Bowyer , Denny Hamlin , Cale Yarborough , Kyle Busch