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NASCAR

Five-time champion Johnson may be better than ever

Jimmie Johnson removes his helmet during Sprint Cup practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway; Friday, July 12, 2013.

Jimmie Johnson removes his helmet during Sprint Cup practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway; Friday, July 12, 2013.

LOUDON – It’s a familiar feeling.

Sprint Cup championships by Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart caused us to momentarily forget what it was like. That feeling that the summer months are just buying time. That Jimmie Johnson is calmly, steadily putting himself in position for another championship, waiting for another September and October that he’ll handle with an unmatched combination of speed and consistency.

The Sprint Cup Series makes its first stop of the season at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend and Johnson, once again, is the best in the business. His four wins are tops in the series. So are his eight top-fives. And his 12 top-10s. And his 658 points.

From 2006 to 2010, Johnson dominated NASCAR. Now, with the best team throughout the first half of the season supporting him, a set of tracks he’s aced in front of him and a Chase system he’s mastered over and over on the horizon, he may be primed for an encore.

Some of his opponents are starting to sense it. This looks, and feels, just like it did before.

“Right now, I think (the title is) the 48’s to lose,” teammate Jeff Gordon said.

“I feel like we need to get better speed-wise,” Kevin Harvick said, “which is what the 48 has made us all do over the last few weeks.”

The man they’re all chasing sees it differently.

“There are a few (cars) out there that have shown their strength. The 20 car (Matt Kenseth) is the first car that comes to mind,” he said. “Right now I have a big points lead, but that all goes away when the Chase gets here.”

It’s not false modesty. Johnson, after all, was in a similar spot last year. He was leading the standings after winning at Fort Worth, two races from a sixth title. But then things went wrong. He ran off a front tire at Phoenix and finished 32nd, had broken gears at Homestead and came in 36th, and had to watch Brad Keselowski walk away with a Cup title that should have been his.

It was a collapse that team owner Rick Hendrick back in January equated to fumbling at the end of a football game, but his driver took the positives from the bleak turn of events.

“We were right there. I’m very proud of the year we had,” said Johnson, who had stumbled to a sixth-place finish the year before. “We lost. That’s just how it is. The year before … embarrassed me more than anything. I’d rather come up short in second than be a distant seventh or eighth. That’s just the way I’ve grown up and the way I’m wired.”

Johnson went to work erasing the bad memories. He began with a bang, winning the Daytona 500, grabbed another victory five races later, then earned a third at Pocono in early June.

His fourth win, however, highlighted that old championship form. Position on a restart at Kentucky two weeks ago cost Johnson a win and dropped him to a ninth-place finish, two races after a lost tire and bad pit stops ended up saddling the five-time champion with a 28th-place finish in Michigan.

Johnson’s response to the tough breaks? A win in Daytona last Sunday, making him the first driver since 1982 to sweep at the illustrious track.

He made it look easy, leading the final 31 laps. When Johnson’s peaking, good racing – avoiding mistakes, staying near the top and finishing high – never looks difficult.

“My struggle has been qualifying, trying to run that single fast lap and get all I can out of the car,” he said. “My strength is the race, the long race, and trying to find a way by people. Managing frustrations, and managing the race and the car setup. So for me, I feel like the race is the part of the weekend I look forward to.”

He’s been at it again this year, and he’s got a field of competitors chasing him as a result. It won’t get easy for them anytime soon. Up next is Loudon, where he’ll start last tomorrow after a failed post-qualifying inspection dropped him from second, but where he’s won three times and averaged a top-10 finish. That stop will be followed by Indianapolis, where he won last year and has finished first in four of the last seven races, and then by Pocono, where he has won already this season.

“We’ve run very well (at Loudon) over the years,” Johnson said. “But it’s an important race because the teams look at any race that you go to that’s in the Chase later in the year (as) really a time to measure how you’re going to be against Chase competitors.”

The similarities between this year and that five-year reign are there to be made, but Johnson doesn’t draw them. That’s not encouraging for the competition. Johnson doesn’t consider himself to be the driver he was then.

He thinks he’s improved.

“I feel I’m a far better driver today than I am from my rookie year, my first championship or my fifth,” he said. “I remember saying in different media situations that I would trade my age for experience any day. It really does make a big difference.”

He’s hoping it’ll pay off. Two years without a title for most drivers isn’t a surprise. For Johnson, however, it’s a drought, and one that he’s eager to end.

“There’s no more motivation from (last year). I want it so bad that I’ve never needed the motivation,” he said. “I’m definitely ready to go again.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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