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Jimmie Johnson's on the pole, a first for him on a road course, and maybe the Glen will be his breakout race

  Jimmie Johnson, signing autographs for fans at Watkins Glen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   So it's looking like Jimmie Johnson is rounding out his game this season: Bristol, Sonoma and the Glen were three places he wanted to make progress on, and he certainly has.
   He's won the pole for Sunday's 220-mile sprint here – his first road course pole. He qualified third at Bristol in the spring, finished third, and led 88 laps; and he finished fourth at Sonoma.
    "What I saw last year here, and also at Sonoma, is that the top three or four, maybe five, are going to be very close on speed, and it's going to boil down to track position and the pit stops," Johnson says.
   Ironically Johnson says his background in off-road racing really "hasn't helped me a bit, which is weird." After all Robby Gordon's off-road prowess seems to have helped him on NASCAR's road courses.
   "I felt road courses would be really easy for me, with my background," Johnson says. "That's what I did, even though it was on the dirt.
    "In those vehicles you can really hustle the vehicle and make up time. 
    "But in these stock cars you really have to look at it as you have a lot of opportunities to lose time….and there are very few places to make up time.
    "It's just been tough for me to switch over. I've had to forget everything from what I've done in the past to drive fast in a Cup car. 
    "Now when I get in the Grand Am car and run it at the Rolex 24 (at Daytona), my old styles and habits work really well with that type of vehicle.  This car, not so much. 
    "Robby had a lot of time running road course stuff in the Trans Am series and in Indy-car; so he got his feet underneath him for road course racing at that point.
    "It's just taken me a long time -- only doing it twice a year -- to figure it out."
    But this road racing stuff is about the only weak part of Johnson's game.
   His victory at Indianapolis, followed by that remarkable comeback (to finish 13th, after being three laps down) at Pocono, marks him as a man on the charge into the playoffs. Johnson has seven top-10s in his last nine starts, including two wins and a second.

Carl Edwards: predicts a big, big crash on one of these double-file restarts (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

It should be a plus for Johnson that teammate Jeff Gordon has won more road races than anyone else. However Gordon hasn't won here since 2001.
   "What make a good road course driver is somebody who is challenged by it, and enjoys that challenge and goes after it," Gordon says. "Jimmie certainly has.
    "And I'm not so sure -- other than the first couple of years that he was at Hendrick -- that we've had the best package out there on the road courses over the last three or four years. 
    "When I was winning all our road course races, I felt we did have the best package, and I did my part. 
    "If we step up our package a little bit -- hopefully this weekend -- I think Jimmie can definitely challenge for a win."
   Here at the Glen will Johnson be in survival mode? Or now that he's a comfortable second in the Sprint Cup standings, maybe he can take advantage of that, particularly if those half dozen rivals still sweating out making the playoff cut play it conservatively here.
   Two key areas of this track to watch: the downhill first turn right-hander, of course, and the backstretch chicane, known as the bus stop.
   "With the double-file restarts that first lap is going to be awfully damn exciting," Johnson says.
   Carl Edwards worries it may be more than merely exciting, after what he endured at Pocono Monday: "I don't know what it looked like on TV, but it just seemed extremely aggressive at Pocono," Edwards said of the two-wide restarts.
    "I saw three or four instances where it was like 'Oh, there's going to be a huge wreck,' and they just avoided it.
    "I believe that that is going to increase the closer we get to the chase.
    "There's a lot of emotion right now -- people coming and going….people grasping. The closer we get to the chase, the more intense it's going to be.
     "And I believe we have yet to see the truly exciting side of the double-file re-starts -- which I feel is going to be wadding up about 15 of the leaders at one of these race tracks.
    "I hope somehow that we can get around that…but it's going to happen. It's going to be bad.
    "I don't see it getting any calmer until something like that happens."

    Jeff Gordon: NASCAR's top road course winner...but winless at the Glen since 2001 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    The first few laps of the race Johnson says will probably be pretty cool, and the drivers will likely stay rather calm. But after that things could get rougher, particularly over in the chicane.
    "You get to the bus stop….well, on the initial start everybody is pretty calm, because you don't want to be out the first lap, so it's give-and-take," Johnson says. "But after three or four restarts, and you lose some spots, and the herd just gets agitated. So it's going to be exciting going through there. 
    "If you can stay on the blacktop…
    "There's going to be a lot of pushing and shoving, but if you get on the grass, you're going to end up in that sand trap.
    "If you can stay on the blacktop, you're going to be okay.  That's my goal on those restarts."
    Getting through the bus stop is quite an exercise. And drivers are certainly going to be pondering that move that Marcos Ambrose put on leader Kyle Busch there in Saturday's Nationwide race.
    "I really have learned a lot following Ron Fellows through the bus stop, with all the experience he has here," Johnson says.
    "How you can go through there smoothly and kind of glide over the curbs…
    "But us Cup guys, the car bounces off the curbs and a lot of air gets underneath the car and it gets real violent.
    "Ron is just real nimble through that stuff. And I have really focused on that and feel I have done a better job from watching him and trying to follow his approach through there. 
   "Now when you get into a situation where you're side-by-side -- especially late in the braking zone in the bus stop – it's just survival. It doesn't really matter who's next to you, especially if they are in there deep and late and you're both at the edge of your brakes. You're just hanging on. 
    "I think it was Kurt Busch and Robby Gordon, in a Nationwide race, who went in there side-by-side on the last lap, and Robby ended up in the grass and slid back up and hit Kurt, and Kurt was in the grass coming out. 
    "It's so narrow trying to get through that area. There's just not a lot of real estate to work with."

It can get a bit jammed up over at the 'bus stop' on the backstretch, where Saturday Marcos Ambrose (L, 47) made the winning move on Kyle Busch (R) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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