Preseason Test: Day four report

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 4: Third Time the Charm? Johnson Ready for First Championship DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 18, 2005) -- Only eight points separated Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) from his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title...

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 4: Third Time the Charm? Johnson Ready for First Championship

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 18, 2005) -- Only eight points separated Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) from his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title in 2004, but he's hardly dwelling on what might have been these days.

First, a new season looms. Second, the same championship challenge remains. And third, comfort plays no small role in a driver's mindset.

"You just want to know that if you go to the race track and put in 100 percent, you have a shot at winning," said Johnson, who's beginning his fourth fulltime season. "I feel that now. It's the first time in my career where I've felt that."

A quick learner and a fast mover, Johnson says he'd never spent extended time in any series or vehicle until he began NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series competition in 2002. Now, he's back to work this week for NASCAR Preseason Thunder, the annual preseason test sessions. Drivers who finished in even number positions in the final 2004 car owner points will test Jan. 18-20 at Daytona International Speedway, the second group to do so. Drivers who finished in odd number positions in the final 2004 car owner point standings tested last week at Daytona.

Aside from the championship, Johnson also has a fresh set of goals: Although he'd love to capture the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb 20, he'd like to win at Daytona or Talladega Superspeedway, the longest tracks on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule and the two where restrictor plates are used on engines. Johnson also would like a victory at Bristol Motor Speedway, a demanding, high-banked, half-mile track.

"Last year I said I want to win at Darlington and Martinsville," Johnson said. "Those were my two tracks that were the most demanding on me and I struggled. We were able to win at both of them. So, I've now set some new goals with a plate race and Bristol. Hopefully we're able to do that."

Last season's successes and heartbreaks aside -- Johnson drives for Hendrick Motorsports, which was shaken by a team plane crash last Oct. 24 -- he's looking to continue the 2004 excellence exhibited by his No. 48 team. Johnson won a series-high eight races last season and sees no reason why he and crew chief Chad Knaus can't aim that high again.

"To be second two years in a row -- we really, really want a championship," said Johnson, who also finished second in 2003. "From growing up around the sport, watching it, and working in it -- it's not something you sign up for and get. We understand how hard that is."

One item has changed from 2004 -- Johnson is a newlywed; he and wife Chandra said their vows Dec. 11 in the Caribbean. He's also warmed up to the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup," which will begin its second season in 2005. A quick reminder; after race No. 26, the top 10 drivers and anyone within 400 points of the leader competes for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title during the season's final 10 races.

"With the new system in place, just watching what it did to the fans and our viewership -- and the people I see in the streets when I'm up in my apartment in New York -- it's amazing what it's done for our sport," Johnson said of fan and media attention. "There are more positives in that."

NEWS OF NOTE

On tap for Wednesday ... Media covering Day Seven of NASCAR Preseason Thunder will meet with Jeff Burton (No. 31 Cingular Chevrolet) from noon until 12:20 p.m. Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet) visits the Daytona media center from 12:30-12:50 p.m., and Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) is scheduled to drop by following the afternoon test session.

Martin eyeing championship finale ... Although 2005 marks his final season as a fulltime NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series competitor, don't expect Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford) to cruise through it collecting tributes and parting gifts. Instead of accepting accolades for a NASCAR career that harks back to the 1980s, Martin will be busy in the shop, at the garage and on the track, working to secure what he hopes will be his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title. But already, there are plenty of accolades coming from his peers. "When I left the drivers meeting at Homestead last year, I grabbed him on the shoulder and he looked at me and I said, 'Buddy, when I grow up I want to be like you,' "Jimmie Johnson said. "I truly meant that. The guy has so much class, so much fire."

A four-time NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series runner-up, Martin came close in 2004, finishing fourth behind eventual champion and Roush Racing teammate Kurt Busch (No. 97 Irwin Industrial Tools/Sharpie Ford) in the first "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup," NASCAR's new method for crowning a champion. It marked a huge rebound from his 17th-place finish in the 2003 final point standings, and for Martin, who announced last October that 2005 would be his final fulltime season, the opportunity to leave near the top of his form was paramount.

"My biggest fear in 2003 and I agonized over it every day was, 'I don't want to go out like this. What a disgrace," Martin said. "Two thousand four boosted my self-esteem by a lot and I think that we can come back and have a great 2005. If it's not as perfect as we hope, it'll still be not on a great decline after having such a bright and shiny 2004." One reason for Martin's zeal is his team. It returns intact from 2004, and 2005 will be his second full year with crew chief Pat Tryson. The rest of their crew, whom Martin credits for a strong 2004 effort, stayed put after Martin asked each of them to stick with him for one final campaign. He feels strongly about their decision.

"I asked them to do that," Martin said. "I asked them to stay and it was an honor to me that they did -- every one of them stayed. That's very special to me and I'd like to acknowledge that and we're going to go after this thing." Martin's not sure what 2006 holds; he's interested in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and he knows he wants to race something, somewhere, some of the time. Son Matt also has begun his racing career and Martin is very involved in that effort. But he has unfinished business of his own.

"That would be pretty strange to not have the champion come back and do the tour," Martin said of the possibility of winning the 2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title. "It's my hope right now that I can screw it up royally." Kenseth ready for fresh start ... After winning his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title in 2003, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Dewalt Ford) finished eighth in 2004. Part of the first "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup," and a perennial NASCAR Top 10 driver, Kenseth nevertheless was disappointed with that result. On Tuesday, he talked about looking back at his title defense and a hectic schedule that he now suspects might have tired him out late in the season. As a result, he has some advice for Roush Racing teammate and 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion Kurt Busch: Pace yourself.

"This year I don't think I left the house except to go up to Wisconsin and come down here for this test," Kenseth of his most recent off-season. "So I'm really enthused for this season to begin."

And, he likes the odds of Roush Racing winning a third consecutive NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title.

"All five teams ran really good at times last year," Kenseth said of his team, Busch's team, Martin's team and those of Greg Biffle (No. 16 National Guard/Subway Ford) and Carl Edwards (No. 99 Office Depot Ford).

Wednesday's Fan Fest activities ... The third NASCAR Preseason Thunder Fan Fest is scheduled for Wednesday in the new FanZone in the Daytona International Speedway infield. During the day, fans who purchase a FanFest ticket can watch testing from the FanZone. Fan Fest begins at 5 p.m. with bands, pit stop demonstrations, auctions and inquisitive fan forums.

Admission is $15 and the proceeds from the NASCAR Preseason Thunder Fan Fest will also benefit Victory Junction Gang Camp, The Women's Auxiliary of Motorsports and American Red Cross for tsunami relief.

Tuesday's fastest driver ... Scott Riggs (No. 10 Valvoline Chevrolet) topped the morning session, posting a high speed of 185.109 mph. Riggs' MB2 Motorsports teammate Joe Nemechek (No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet) was fastest in the afternoon at 184.661.

Fast Facts

What: NASCAR Preseason Thunder.
Where: Daytona International Speedway.
When: Jan. 11-24.

Track layout: 2.5-mile tri-oval superspeedway.

Test schedule: Jan. 18-20 -- NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series (Even-number car owner 2004 point standings finishing positions); Jan. 22-24 -- NASCAR Busch Series.

-nascar-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Joe Nemechek , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Scott Riggs , Kasey Kahne , Carl Edwards , Chad Knaus , Mark Martin