Originally created 10/25/02

Cool rookie enjoying title chase



HAMPTON, Ga. -- Perhaps someone should tell Jimmie Johnson that rookies aren't supposed to be part of a Winston Cup championship chase.

Johnson is hanging in there, even while four-time champion Jeff Gordon - who owns Johnson's car - has slipped out of the title picture in the past few weeks.

As the stock car series arrives at Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday's NAPA 500, Johnson is second in the standings. He's just 82 points behind leader Tony Stewart with four races remaining.

"Since about one-third of the way through the season, we've found ourselves in the top five in the points and started facing that reality of everyone saying we're not supposed to be there," Johnson said. "But we've stayed there all year long and fought hard for it and won races and poles. I feel we've earned our keep."

Johnson is having the most successful rookie year in Winston Cup history, even if he doesn't win the title. He's got three race wins, 20 finishes in the top 10, and six in the top five.

The 27-year-old Californian also has won five pole positions going into Friday's first-ever night qualifying on the 1.54-mile suburban track.

The top showing by a Winston Cup rookie was Stewart's fourth-place finish in 1999.

Was this what Johnson was expecting when he slipped into the No. 48 Chevrolet for his first Daytona 500 in February?

"I think I'd be crazy if I had thought I had a shot to win the championship," Johnson said. "We started with some realistic goals: making races and trying to finish in the top 15.

"Early in the season, we blew the roof off of it and started running really good. Of course, being a part of Hendrick Motorsports and having (Gordon) in the same building with us for us to learn and grow from has really made the difference for our team."

Stewart and Johnson aren't the only drivers with a shot at the championship going into Sunday's race. Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and another rookie, Ryan Newman, are right behind Johnson.

The top five drivers are separated by only 177 points.

Stewart appears to have an edge, because he has had success at all of the four tracks left on the schedule. That includes a victory last spring at Atlanta.

The leader isn't about to take anything for granted, though.

"We've gained some momentum, for sure. I think there are still a couple of teams out there that have found a little bit more at those tracks than we have. We're still racing a 6-year-old car that we're trying to get caught up with everybody else," Stewart said.

Johnson is relishing the unexpected challenge of racing for a title in his first season on the circuit.

"I think we're right on the edge of controlling our own destiny," he said. "Tony is known to be able to hit top fives and, if we're able to win, and he's fifth or sixth, we still have a chance at controlling it ourselves.

"If we pick up 20 points or so each race for the rest of the year, we would be the champions."