Chase champ survives tough times
November 25, 2006 8:37pm CST
Grace under pressure -- what better way to describe Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team? It's pretty simple: Present Johnson with a challenge and he will show you how he shines -- and right now, he's the brightest light in NASCAR. His arduous journey started when crew chief Chad Knaus spent the first four races of the season suspended because of a rules violation. Never mind -- Johnson won twice, including the Daytona 500, and finished no worse than sixth in the four races. Nearly six months later at Indianapolis, Johnson blew a tire on Lap 39, fell to 39th and still kissed the bricks with his crew at the end of the day. Johnson's performance last Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway was just another example. In the early stages of the race Johnson vigilantly navigated from his 15th-place starting position to seventh, and that's when the fun and games started. First, debris from Kurt Busch's car knocked a honeydew-size hole in Johnson's grille on Lap 15. The team gathered its tape and tools and waited for Johnson to bring his wounded Chevrolet to pit road. It wasn't long before Johnson was ready to roll -- but from the 39th position. "There's our drama for the day," Knaus radioed to the team. "Now we've got to pass all those cars." Johnson seemed on a mission to get that done quickly. By the time a caution for debris on the track was lifted on Lap 50, Johnson -- and his crew -- had pushed the No. 48 to 15th place. And Knaus was wrong. There was more drama. With Johnson comfortably running in the top 10, the team opted to pit on Lap 118. Because Knaus was uncertain about the stability of all five lug nuts on the left front tire, he insisted Johnson remain in the pits until the situation was clear. Johnson fell back to 16th, but it would have been worse had NASCAR penalized the team for having just four lug nuts attaching the tire. There was one more scare. On Lap 188 Robby Gordon spun out in front of Johnson, who maintained his cool and his sixth-place position. Except for a few love taps from rival Kevin Harvick, that was it. Johnson cruised to a ninth-place finish -- his 24th in the top 10 this season. "We perform better under pressure because we don't pay attention to outside things," Johnson says. "We just focus on doing our jobs. I think that's really important. We know when we put in 100 percent, and we know when we don't. "Instead of getting caught up in the negative and letting it spin out of control, we tell ourselves, 'Suck it up, and let's go.' And I'm proud of that." Johnson has many reasons to be proud. Some drivers take the cautious route and points-race to the title, but Johnson was up on the wheel every week. During his five years in the Cup division, he has finished in the top five in the point standings five times, and he has 23 victories, 66 top fives and 110 top 10s in 183 starts. Some teams fold under pressure. With a driver like Johnson, the No. 48 becomes stronger. And there's little doubt he will hoist the Nextel Cup trophy again. SN Staff writer Lee Spencer covers NASCAR for Sporting News. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.