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Jimmie Johnson's reading 'My boys can swim,' and awaiting the big day: Got Pampers?

 The last time out at Daytona, last July, Tony Stewart beat Jimmie Johnson to the line by a scant two lengths (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern
   With a new baby on the way, Jimmie Johnson is reconsidering the upcoming NASCAR season, particularly considering some of the issues teammate Jeff Gordon discovered a few years back when his daughter was born: "The best advice I'm getting seems to be 'Get caught up on your rest, come race weekend," Johnson says with a laugh. "That seems to be a common theme."
   Preparing for the big event? "I've read a book – 'My boys can swim,'" the four-time Sprint Cup champ says, grinning.
   That's billed as 'the official guy's guide to pregnancy.'
   "There were a lot of pictures, and it was really thin."
   So we'll see if fatherhood distracts Johnson in the weeks and months ahead.
   His rivals, burned by Johnson's dominance on the stock car tour the past so many years, can only hope so.
   Yet as focused as Johnson can be, well, that may be wishful thinking.
   Daytona will be the focus the next two weeks, but that's a creature all to itself, especially in February.
   The real NASCAR season kicks off at California's Auto Club Speedway, just outside of Los Angeles Feb. 21. And Johnson, though his record at Daytona isn't that great, kicks butt at the two-mile LA track. So how does he feel about the fall California race now the California 400, and 100 miles shorter?
  "Good…anything to keep the attention of our fans," Johnson says. "Can we cut Pocono to 400 too?
  "Although I perform better in longer races, we're all trying to figure out how to capture an audience in today's world, when you have so many things to do.
  "Nobody's attention span is long any more, with all the social networking things. So if you've got four hours of cars driving in circles, we've got to do things to make it shorter and more entertaining."

  NASCAR's Captain America prepares to put on his steel cape (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And the Daytona 500 this time around? Johnson won it in 2006. With NASCAR's new 'let 'em play' rules, how will Johnson – known as a fair and courteous driver generally, and not given to rowdiness – fare?
   "Daytona finishes under the lights, which is helpful in keeping us all in a big pack," Johnson ponders. "And then there's usually a late-race yellow, which bunches everybody up on new tires.
   "With that in mind, it boils down to the right situation and the right push.
   "I won mine by defending the bottom. And the line behind me went to move out, but the majority of cars stayed on the bottom with me.
   "Kevin Harvick won his (2007) on the outside, when he looked like he was in no-man's land. But he got a huge push and came around to win on the last lap.
  "So it's just about being lucky and being in the right place, in the right situation.
   "If we don't have a late caution, and the field gets strung out, handling is so important at Daytona that you've got to have a good handling race car (on worn tires). You can only slide the car around so much and abuse the tires…so you've got to handle on the bottom line.
   "But I'd assume we'll have a late-race caution; we always do, to bunch us up."

   The infamous bump-draft: not much daylight is there between Carl Edwards' rear bumper and Jimmie Johnson's nose? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Are there any really weak spots in Jimmie's game? Well, road courses and Bristol.
  And Johnson gave car owner Rick Hendrick quite a scare last week when he crashed during practice for the Daytona 24. Now driving a Daytona Prototype may be some good training for Johnson for NASCAR's Sonoma and Watkins Glen Cup events, but still that had to be a scary moment…recalling Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s own road racing crash during an off-weekend a few years back.
    Bristol: "I'm trying to be optimistic," Johnson says of next month's Tennessee 500.
   "We've made huge strides at Bristol; we finished third in the spring, and led a bunch in the fall until we had a problem on pit road. I think we can win Bristol this time.
  "But, man, you've got to dodge a lot of issues to stay out of trouble at Bristol. Pit road is treacherous.
   "For me, the issue has been finding the right rhythm: the car gets airborne into the corners and you land and then accelerate in the middle of the corner and then have to let off to complete the turn.
   "The rhythm of all that is backwards – sometimes you're harder on the gas in the middle of the corners than you are on the straightaways.
   "So the right rhythm is very important."
   However the biggest issue, as the NASCAR season opens, is what will happen at Daytona and Talladega in the four restrictor plate races, with NASCAR's new hands-off rules.
   Will that lead to more aggressive blocking by drivers?
   Will that lead to more aggressive moves?
   And of course what about the closing rate, and the aerodynamics of the soon-to-be new rear spoiler?
   "I don't think you'll see a big difference," Johnson insists.
   "I think there was a lot of unfair criticism put on the Talladega race (last fall, when drivers opted to run single-file for a couple of hours rather than battle it out, after NASCAR, in the pre-race drivers' meeting, said it would be enforcing a ban on slam-drafting).
   "We all decided not to race; we didn't all want to wreck on lap 15. And we rode single-file until the end….and then we wrecked them like crazy."
   Ryan Newman had yet another scary incident, flipping in one late crash, and hanging upside down inside his battered car for nearly 10 minutes.
    "Talladega is clearly a different race track than Daytona, where handling matters," Johnson said. "You'll see drivers being very aggressive on new tires (at Daytona) in trying to get track position. You have to be aggressive; otherwise you'll be stuck in dirty air…and you might have to let off the gas. And if you let off the gas with a plate engine, it takes two or three laps to get your momentum back. Till then, you're dead in the water.
   "So I think you'll see a very aggressive race at Daytona when on new tires. Then it will probably get strung out single-file by lap five or six."
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    Polished, urbane, great all-around guy. But how rowdy will Jimmie Johnson get this season, with NASCAR CEO Brian France saying he wants "more contact" (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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