Reigning champ is back in form

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LONG POND, Pa. --- It's taken most of the season, but Jimmie Johnson has found his groove in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

A week after he won the pole position and the Allstate 400 at Indianapolis, Johnson drove his No. 48 Chevrolet to the top starting spot for the Sunoco American Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway.

Johnson had one victory in the first 19 races, and that came on a fuel-mileage gamble in April at Phoenix. Now, he's practically unstoppable.

"We're going in the right direction," Johnson said after being clocked at 168.215 mph on the 2.5-mile, triangle-shaped track. "It was a lot of hard work, but it's nice to see it all coming together."

Johnson said the team's turnaround started at Pocono in June with a sixth-place finish. That's when Hendrick Motorsports found something with the front springs that finally got things on track.

"It really is confusing how you use the left-front, the right-front and both -- the compounds of the material inside," Johnson said. "I think what we learned here at Pocono in the spring carried over to Michigan, and we were able to show it at Michigan, also at Indy. Coming back (to Pocono), we're in good shape."

Johnson, a two-time defending series champion, has improved two spots to fourth in the rankings since the last Pocono race.

Three months ago, Johnson's team struggled so much it spent more than a week testing on off days. The first step, he said, was admitting there was a problem.

"At first, we thought, 'Well, it's just a bad test.' And then we'd go back out for the race and thought, 'Oh, bad race, but we can't be that far off.' We worked extremely hard over the off-season, but unfortunately we worked in the wrong areas," Johnson said.

"We were in a bit of shock for a while, and then we admitted it. It's kind of like a three-step program or some kind of addiction program where first you have to recognize you have a problem, then address it. ... Now, we're coming through it."

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.


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