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Jimmie Johnson may be back on a roll....but it's hard to race in the rain

  Game face (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   POCONO, Pa.
   Now clean-shaven, Jimmie Johnson is fresh off his biggest win of the season, at Indianapolis, and he was fastest in the final round of practice for the Pennsylvania 500.
   But it could be hard for even Jimmie to beat all this Sunday rain and rolling fog.
   Nevertheless, whenever the 500-miler actually takes the green, Johnson and his Rick Hendrick teammates look to be the men to beat…except for Tony Stewart, who will have to make his way from the back of the pack – which he did in June, to win, but which will likely be difficult to repeat.
    And Johnson, also winner in late May at Dover and at Martinsville in March, and now up to second in the Cup standings, may finally be catching fire again, and just in time to strike fear in the hearts of his title rivals.
   "As we get closer to the chase (which opens in mid-September), it's nice to have a win and carry the momentum and confidence that comes with that," Johnson says.
    "But this is a much different track than what we see in the chase…so it's more of a mental thing if we could leave here with a great run.
    "It's hard to say we'll take much from the technology side from this track to anywhere else, but it's good for the head."
    Johnson, selling his $4.4 million New York condo, that 3200-square-foot loft in Chelsea he bought in 2007, may need a good run here to hold some momentum, if his typical day at Watkins Glen, next week's stop, goes like it usually does – not so well. And then later this month Johnson has another difficult track for him, Bristol.
    "We've made a lot of progress at Bristol and at Infineon," Johnson says. "I had a speeding violation and was able to drive up through all the cars and find myself in fourth. So I think we're making great gains.
    "I'm becoming much more aware of what these cars need on road courses.
    "We were very fast at the race last year at The Glen, so I think we have a shot -- our best shot yet."
    All this comes as Johnson's sponsor, Lowe's, appears to be on the verge of pulling out of NASCAR as name-sponsor of Charlotte Motor Speedway. However Johnson's own team contract with Lowe's, he says, runs another two years.
    "I'm not in the loop on what Lowe's does and what they choose to do in marketing and advertising," Johnson says. "My focus is really on the car.
    "It's unfortunate that they're not going back (to the Concord, N.C. track), but I guess it is what it is."
    Johnson isn't going to worry about that. He's got another title to win.
   "And I, truthfully, feel better this year than last," Johnson, who is going for his fourth straight championship, says. "We've been more consistent with speed in the car all season long. We didn't have to play catch-up.
    "We've had the speed, we've just been making small mistakes, and we've had some things not go our way with fuel mileage and things late in the race.
    "We could have won, like, five races, if you look back at Chicago, Michigan, and a few other races.
    "Earlier this year I was making some mistakes, and maybe getting a little too frustrated. And I see us getting back into that rhythm that we're going to need for the chase.
    "There are long races in the chase (four 500-milers), and it's a 10-race stretch. 'Only' 10 races? But 10 races is a long time. It takes its toll.
   "The change with Atlanta and California is good for us. We have won that fall California race a couple times the last few years.
   " Atlanta, granted, we finished second there last year, but we ran around in like 11th or 12th most of the day, and Chad Knaus made a brave call to come in and get tires, and we worked our way back up in to second.
   "Talladega: there is just no telling what is going to happen there. Regardless of where it is in the chase, if it is the first race or the last race, you just dread going, and hope that you make it.
   "But the Atlanta-California switch should be good for us."
   Weakness here?
    "I see a ton of weaknesses in myself and in the team -- even when we're on a roll and seem unstoppable," Johnson insists. "When you're living it, it's so different -- You see how fragile the environment is.
    "I see all of that stuff, and I'm pretty amazed we've held it all together for three years and now going for a fourth."

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