Sports

CUP: Rocky Start Doesn't Worry Johnson

For most drivers, having a week like Jimmie Johnson has had so far at Daytona International Speedway would be cause for grave concern.

Johnson was flat out uncompetitive in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, where he finished a disappointing 13th in a field of just 24 cars.

Worse yet, on Wednesday, he got caught up in Mike Bliss's crash at the exit of Turn 4 during Sprint Cup practice for Sunday's Daytona 500.

The end result was enough damage to the nose of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that Johnson was forced to go to a backup car for today's Gatorade Duels at Daytona, which will be televised live on SPEED starting at 2 p.m.

But neither Johnson nor his crew chief, Chad Knaus, professed to be worried. The team will race in the 500 with Johnson's Shootout car, which the team will work on to improve its handling.

"This car raced here (Daytona) in July 2009, and we finished second with it," said Knaus of the No. 48 backup car. "And we ran in the Bud Shootout here just last weekend, last Saturday night. So we're just going to go through it and get it fixed up. We are fortunate we were able to keep this car. It's a good race car. We feel confident about it. We're going to send the other car back home (Charlotte) and get it fixed and have it back here tomorrow for a back-up for the 500."

Johnson, meanwhile, is already looking beyond Daytona — way beyond, in fact.

Asked where he felt he needed to improve this year, Johnson jumped directly past NASCAR's 26-race regular season and into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, where he has been virtually bulletproof in each of his last four championship seasons.

“In the Chase, when the championship is on the line, I feel really good about the tracks in the Chase," said Johnson. "I think that New Hampshire, we need to be a little bit better there, although we finished, I think, in the top-five. We haven’t won there in a while and it would be nice to start to narrow in on that to start the Chase strong. I think we could send one hell of a message to the garage area if we could come out and win the first race of the Chase."

And for Johnson, Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 crew, sending messages is a key element to their success. There's no question that the team has developed some serious swagger in recent years and is attempting to use it to their advantage.

"The confidence we have as a team is seen in the garage and the things that we have done in the past is great and it might carry over to the start of this season," said Johnson. "But truthfully, as a competitor in this sport and the other competitors do this as well, you have to let stuff roll off your back quick. You can’t hang on to the past too long. You have to keep looking forward and moving ahead. With that in mind, if we do have some type of mental advantage, it is not there for long. But, what can simulate that is if we are winning races."

And so Johnson has a simple aim for the start of this season: Win early and win often.

"The best thing we can do to keep that advantage is to win races," said Johnson. "If we go a long stretch without winning and not performing, we are not going to be a threat in the minds of those other teams. It is really up to us to keep that going and I think we can. Out of (the) people in the garage area right now with less success, we can intimidate people. I don’t think we have everybody beat for the entire season, we have to go out and prove ourselves week in and week out."

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief for SPEEDtv.com, the former Executive Editor of NASCAR Scene and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. He is the author of "Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of SPEED," and has appeared on television and radio shows to discuss NASCAR racing. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association. Jensen is the 1997 National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year and has won numerous national and state awards for news reporting, columns and feature writing. The Answer Man is back at SPEEDtv.com. Tom Jensen answers your questions during every race week and looks forward to hearing from you - please e-mail it to