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Johnson Leading Points, Looking for
First Championship

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The numbers speak for themselves. Three wins, seven top fives and 13 finishes in the top 10. Through 16 races, Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team have finished lower than 12th just once—30th, at Bristol Motor Speedway, as capricious a track as you’re going to find in NASCAR.

It bears repeating: In a sport where top 10s are considered a primary indication of a driver’s success or failure, Johnson has managed to deliver a positive result virtually every single week. It’s a level of performance that would satisfy the overwhelming majority of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup drivers, a résumé on which many would rest contentedly for quite some time.

And Johnson? How does he view the 2006 season nearing the halfway point?

“We are in the ‘B’ range,” he says, giving himself and the team a letter grade. “We’ve been doing good, but I think we have some room to go with the race cars and different things like that so I’d say we are about a ‘B’ right now.”

Talk about tough standards. Of course, Johnson can be forgiven a bit of disappointment. This is a man who has accomplished a lot in a miniscule period of time, a guy who had a “to-do” list when he entered the sport in 2002 and has, in very short order, systematically checked off every item—save one.

In four full seasons, Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet have finished fifth in points twice and second twice.  In 2004, when he won eight races and had another 12 top fives, Johnson lost the championship by about six inches—or the distance between Kurt Busch’s right-front and the pit road wall at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

In other words, while winning his first Daytona 500 in February knocked another item off the list and guaranteed that 2006 would be successful, only one achievement would raise the grade. That, obviously, is a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship.

With a spot in the Chase—he’s held the overall lead for all but two weeks—and his fifth top-10 finish in five seasons seemingly assured, Johnson won’t rest easy until all the chips are counted and he’s the last one standing.

But Johnson knows timing will play a big factor in winning his first title.

“I think [peaking] does happen in our sport,” he says warily. “Our season is so long, none of us can plan on when we’re going to peak. So you just kind of roll the dice. We’ve been known to peak early and then again late. But it’s been a little too late. Hopefully we can adjust that a little bit and peak at the right time.”

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