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Nothing to lose, so rookie's a contender

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2002

It's nothing personal.

It's nothing personal.

By all accounts, Jimmie Johnson is a nifty race car driver and dandy human being. His family seems swell. But a rookie should not, would not, could not win the Winston Cup championship.

Could he?

With his third victory of the season Sunday at Dover, Johnson propelled himself to second in the standings, just 30 points behind veteran Mark Martin with eight races left.

"All year long we've tried not to have it be in the forefront of our minds, but here we are with eight races to go and we're in this points battle," said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet. "It's a reality that we need to look at."

So does everyone else.

Conventional wisdom, of course, says experience matters most. Danger lurks in every turn. Even the slightest air-pressure adjustment has huge implications. So, how can a rookie driver with a rookie team possibly hold up to the pressure of a championship race?

Because he has nothing to lose.

From the start, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus ran aggressive setups on the No. 48 while veterans expected to compete for the title, including teammate and co-owner Jeff Gordon, played it safe. Little was expected from Johnson, so his risk was minimal.

"The only reason we can't win it is because everybody keeps telling us we can't," Knaus said. "So, we're just going to keep doing what we're doing and try to win races. We're going to try to sit on the poles, we're going to try to lead the most laps, we're going to try to be fastest in practice -- just like we did at the beginning of the season. We're just going to go for it and see what happens."

There are some strong tracks left on the schedule for Johnson, including Atlanta and Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he dominated in May only to come up short in the Winston and Coca-Cola 600. He's nervous about Martinsville and Talladega, but who isn't?

Technically, 10 drivers are within reach of the championship, but it's beginning to look like a three-man race among Martin, Johnson and third-place Tony Stewart, who trails by 74.

In the lead for only one week, Martin has begun to play it safe in search of his first championship. With a strong car in the final stages at Dover, he elected not to make an adjustment that might have put him in Victory Lane.

"We could have made an adjustment on the last stop, but we decided not to because we wanted to be conservative," said Martin, who finished second. "We didn't want to let something slip through our fingers."

Stewart, whose pattern is to finish the season strong, seems driven to overcome off-track troubles. But winning the championship means a full slate of public appearances and interviews. At this point, Stewart would rather eat lug nuts.

Sterling Marlin is faltering.

Gordon is fading.

So, why not Johnson?

"I guess we don't know any better, so maybe there's an advantage in that," Johnson said. "It seems to be working at this point, so we're just going to play dumb and see what happens."

* * *

GOSH, HE'S SORRY: NASCAR fined Knaus $5,000 Monday for cursing during a television interview after Sunday's win. Knaus used a profanity to describe how hard the No. 48 team worked.

SLIP SLIDING AWAY: Marlin, who led for 25 consecutive weeks, dropped from second to fourth after finishing 21st at Dover. He has lost 176 points in the past four races, from a 95-point lead to an 81-point deficit.

AUCTION NOTICE: The helmet and firesuit worn by Bobby Labonte at Dover bearing the words "Let's Roll" will be featured in an online auction starting today on eBay. Proceeds will go to the Todd M. Beamer Foundation.

TUNING IN: The U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be televised at 2 p.m. Sunday on WFTS-Ch. 28. Bob Jenkins will be the host for the ABC telecast, with Ben Edwards as race announcer, former F1 driver John Watson as analyst and former Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan as pit reporter.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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