Sunday, June 8, 2003

Johnson's strategy: Lead all the way

But polesitter expects a challenge from Newman, who's back on track

The Associated Press

LONG POND, Pa. - If Jimmie Johnson has his way today at Pocono Raceway, 100,000 spectators and a TV of audience of millions will be terribly bored.

The polesitter for the Pocono 500 would like to sprint out to an early lead and never surrender it.

But he's realistic enough to know leading from the green flag to the checkered is a rarity in Winston Cup racing. It hasn't been accomplished since Jeff Burton won three years ago in New Hampshire.

Still, Johnson insists there's no way to seriously contend on this triangular layout without being near the front.

"There really isn't a second groove all the way around and it's very hard to make up ground and pass people while the leader is stretching it out away from you," he said. "It's all about track position."

Even though he won the pole Friday, Johnson knows he might not even lead the first of 200 laps. To do that, he will have to outrace Ryan Newman, who starts from the outside of the front row.

A third of the way through this season, they are among the cars to beat virtually every week.

Newman is the fastest with a series-leading four poles this year and is starting from the front row for the third straight race. He won from the pole last Sunday in Dover, Del.

Johnson hasn't done badly, either. He won the non-points NASCAR all-star race last month, then made it a sweep at Lowe's Motor Speedway with a victory two weeks ago in the Coca-Cola 600.

"We are both young, aggressive drivers," the 27-year-old Johnson said.

Newman, two years younger than Johnson, also recognizes the similarities. He notes that both overcame early-season difficulties at about the same time.

"There for a while I was struggling at the start of the race and he was struggling at the end of the race," Newman said. "The last few weeks, that's changed for both of us with the exception of Jimmie last week."

Johnson crashed and wound up 38th in Dover, where he swept the races last year. He fell two spots to seventh in the series standings, 339 points behind leader Matt Kenseth after 13 of 36 races.

Newman's predicament - the result of early-season problems - is far worse. Even after the victory in Dover, he's 18th in the standings, 569 points back.

But Newman isn't looking back. He's expecting another strong second half. Newman picked up 10 positions in the last 18 races of 2002.

Johnson and Newman figure to get the most pressure from Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, who start third and fourth today - just where they finished in Dover.

Pocono 500

Today's race: at Long Pond, Pa.; 12:30 p.m.,Ch. 19. 45.

Track: Pocono International Raceway (triangular oval, 2.5 miles, 14 degrees banking in turn 1, 8 degrees in turn 2, 6 degrees in turn 3).

Race distance: 500 miles, 200 laps.

Last race: Despite losing the power steering in his Dodge, Ryan Newman held off Jeff Gordon to win the MBNA 400 at Dover International Speedway.

Newman is the second two-time winner this season, joining Kurt Busch.

Last year: Dale Jarrett recorded his first victory in almost 11 months by winning the Pocono 500. Jarrett took the lead from Jeff Burton on lap 179 and held on for his first win since the previous July in New Hampshire, a span of 30 races.

Next race: Sirius Satellite Radio 400, June 15, Brooklyn, Mich.

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