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Fingers pointed squarely at points leader

Nextel Cup rivals say Jimmie Johnson has dished out enough hits to dent his reputation as a clean driver.

By BRANT JAMES
Published May 7, 2005


Darlington Raceway is not the kind of place most people would call a refuge. It's fairly remote, fairly ugly, and completely unforgiving. Drivers don't so much win there as endure.

But in these trying times for Jimmie Johnson, the 1.366-mile oval in the South Carolina boondocks looks like a mother's outstretched arms. One of NASCAR's Teflon reputations has been sullied the past month, when his apparent aggressive driving knocked Jeff Burton out at Bristol, Tony Stewart at Phoenix and, according to Dale Earnhardt Jr., about 30 cars at Talladega last weekend. Earnhardt went so far as to call him an "idiot."

None of that likely would have stung so much had Johnson's streak of 13 straight top 10s, dating to last season, not been broken with finishes of 15th at Phoenix and 20th at Talladega. He hopes Darlington, where he won both races last season, can again bring him his accustomed quiet success.

"It's a place where everyone really has to focus on their individual jobs and just do that job," he said. "If I get too busy racing other cars, you'll make a mistake. If the guys get worried about doing something else on pit road or being the fastest all the time, mistakes are going to be made. It's really about racing the track. You hear that old cliche there, but it's very true. Everyone just has to stay focused on their deal and race the racetrack."

Johnson led 69 laps to win the spring race last year. His fall win was an adventure. He led 124 laps but was anything but dominating. Teammate Jeff Gordon held that distinction, a frustrating one considering he led 159 laps then was undone by running over an air hose during a late pit stop. Johnson passed Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray on Lap 359 of 367 and held on for the win and his fifth top 10 in six races at Darlington. The win was Johnson's fourth in five Chase for the Championship races and set up an unsuccessful run for the title the following weekend in Homestead.

"It's massive," Johnson said of sweeping at Darlington, where he starts ninth in tonight's Dodge Charger 500. "To be able to win a race at Darlington is a huge accomplishment. Personally I know that it doesn't have the luster of like the Daytona 500 or some of the other races from an outsider's standpoint (but) when you leave that racetrack, you know that you won, you are the guy that everybody chased."

The same can be said of Johnson's position in the standings. Despite his recent woes, he continues to lead the Nextel Cup points by 130 points over defending series champion Kurt Busch.

Johnson's most recent on-track incident began on Lap 132 at Talladega when his No. 48 Chevrolet hit Mike Wallace's car after it was pushed from behind by Earnhardt, starting a crash that involved 25 cars. Johnson's brush with the wall with two laps to go later knocked out several others, including Earnhardt, who was critical of Johnson at a Lowe's Motor Speedway test this week.

"I think everybody wants to put blame somewhere," Johnson said. "It's just the way that everybody works.

"Everybody wants answers as to why there's big wrecks. I think that our wreck on Sunday was a racing incident. If you took one of those three components out of what took place to start that big wreck, it wouldn't have happened."

The first major blotch on an otherwise squeaky first four full years in Nextel Cup has made for interesting drama among the drivers. Some defend him, some call him an idiot, but all are watching.

"Everybody has days like Jimmie had at Talladega," Jamie McMurray said. "(Media) have to have something to talk about. A couple of drivers really had some harsh words about him, and it makes for a really good story. I've been reading on the Internet all morning on my bus, so you're doing a real good job."

At this point Johnson will take any friend he can find, even if it's a 55-year-old race track known as "The Lady in Black."

"I've become decent friends with her," he said, "and we'll just try to keep it that way."