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CUP: Johnson – Strong Start A Boost

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It hasn’t escaped the attention of anyone on the Sprint Cup tour that defending series champion Brad Keselowski has started the season like a comet. He hasn’t won a race, but he has finished in the top four in the first four races of the season, a rare accomplishment. No other driver has more than two top fives to open the season.

Jimmie Johnson knows of such things. He’s had a few smart starts in a career that has yielded five championships.

“It’s nice when you’re in that sweet spot and everybody is working well together as a team and you can continue to get those top-five finishes and wins,” Johnson said. “With that stat, I know they don’t have a win yet, but I know they are knocking on the door quite a few times. I would imagine that is right around the corner for them.

“Then from there it’s just how do you harness that and keep your team working like this until the Chase starts and preserve that, whatever that is – magic in a bottle or lightning, whatever you want to call it. It’s tough to preserve it and keep it for 10 months. That’s the challenging part, but off to an amazing start.”

The start hasn’t been too shabby for Johnson, either. A win in the Daytona 500. Second at Phoenix. Sixth at Las Vegas. He ran into his first hurdle at Bristol, a tire issue dropping him to a 22nd-place finish. That cost him the point lead for the first time this season. But, not to worry. He sits third, only 15 points off the pace of the new leader, not surprisingly Keselowski.

The 48 team and Hendrick Motorsports in general continue to work on the fine points of the new Gen-6 car, Johnson said.

“We’re still on that fence right now, and we have things going on with front suspension on the car where we’ve been racing one way, we’re considering another way and we’ll change it in and out during practice,” he said. “Even the rear spring rates and such, just trying to get that under control with what the attitude of the car wants to be. We don’t have a deep notebook yet.

“At Bristol, I would say, even though it’s a small track would be probably the best example of all four [Hendrick] teams kind of going in different directions.

“I felt like Kasey (Kahne) and I were pretty competitive throughout the race and he certainly won, but our front ends on our race cars couldn’t have been more different. They were polar opposites, but we were both very fast and competitive all day long. With this new car, there are still quite a few things to sort out and, so, yeah, one of our four cars at least will race with a big unknown [Sunday] just because, why not? It’s that time of the year to explore and experiment.

“To a certain degree, it’s a big car punching a big hole in the air and with air moving over the top of it and not having ground effects, it’s very difficult to make things much different. I feel like now that I have been at a few fast tracks and coming here, I think we’re going to see good racing. We’re going to see a similar type of racing that we’ve seen here in the past.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.