Johnson eyes first road win as NASCAR battle heats up

By John Kekis
Associated Press / August 9, 2009

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - Jimmie Johnson’s quest to win a record fourth straight NASCAR title is intact, but it remains in the back of his mind. Front and center is winning on a road course.

Johnson has failed to find Victory Lane in 15 career starts over the sweeping courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, the only road races on the Sprint Cup schedule, and for the former champion off-road racer that lack of success grates like nothing else.

“It’s been shocking to me. It really gets under my skin,’’ said Johnson, who began racing motocross at age 5 and has won six off-road championships. “It’s surprising that I have not been better on a road course in a Cup car. I think that we’re getting closer and closer. At Sonoma [in June], we overcame a lot and finished fourth. It left me extremely optimistic for this race.’’

So, too, did qualifying. Johnson won his first road-course pole Friday, putting him in the catbird seat - at least at the start of today’s 90-lap race around Watkins Glen’s 11-turn, 2.45-mile circuit.

The trick will be to remain there, and with Kurt Busch starting alongside Johnson on the front row, that might be difficult. The two spun together and tangled at Sonoma in June, and Busch was fuming at Johnson after some late-race bumping at Chicagoland last month.

Factor in aggressive Marcos Ambrose, who starts right behind the leaders in fourth, and the chance for an early altercation rises. Ambrose, who finished third here a year ago after starting last, defended his Nationwide title in the Zippo 200 yesterday after passing Kyle Busch with a daring move entering the chicane. Forced to the side after near contact with Ambrose, Busch had to stop in the paved runoff area to avoid a penalty.

“I felt like I got cheap-shotted there,’’ said Busch, who banged fenders with Ambrose after the checkered flag to show his dismay. “I had no idea he was there. I had to do what I had to do. I would have wrecked.’’

And that was just the warmup for today.

“This place is going to be pretty interesting,’’ Juan Pablo Montoya said. “If you ratchet it up, you’re going to DNF.’’

It might not take long for tempers to flare. The first turn is a bumpy 90-degree right-hand bend with a large runoff area, and it represents one of the prime places to pass.

“You can go four-wide into Turn 1 and not pay a huge consequence,’’ Kurt Busch said. “But four-wide is starting to push it. The guy on the inside is going to win, the guy on the outside is going to end up in the fence.’’

Cup drivers have made impressive advances in road racing in the past decade, in part by using specialists from other series, such as Ron Fellows and Boris Said, as instructors.

“We’ve had those guys come in and teach us things,’’ said Kyle Busch, who won a NASCAR-record three road races in 2008, two in Cup competition plus a Nationwide Series event at Mexico City. “Ultimately, them teaching us and helping us out has sort of brought the field a lot closer together. It’s harder for those guys to find an advantage.’’

Among those who will be searching for any edge are teams in contention to make the Chase for the championship. Only five races remain until the cutoff - the top 12 drivers in the standings qualify for the 10-race postseason reset - and Kyle Busch in 13th is only 101 points behind the 12th man, Greg Biffle.